This is an unusual and rarely performed or recorded work from the versatile and prolific Vaughan Williams. In 1913 the composer wrote a spate of "incidental music" scores, mostly for Shakespearean plays: The Merry Wives of Windsor, King Richard II, King Henry IV -- Part 2, Richard III, Henry V, The Devil's Disciple (by George Bernard Shaw) and this one, Death of Tintagiles. This latter effort was the first of them chronologically, and was composed to accompany a production of the 1894 Maurice Maeterlinck play.
The story of this strange tale centers on the orphaned grandson of an old, jealous Queen, the young boy Tintagiles, who is the future king in the unnamed land. The Queen banishes him to a dark and morbid castle to suffer unspeakable horrors along with his two sisters. There young Tintagiles succumbs to unseen sinister powers. Vaughan Williams' score is comprised of six sections -- a prelude, followed by five short movements, the fourth having two parts. The Prelude consists of mostly slow music (Largo - Andantino - Adagio) and, at five or six minutes, is the longest section in the score. Most of the music in the work is grim or sorrowful, perfectly appropriate for its subject matter, and quite atmospheric in its imaginative scoring.
Yet, there is little variety of mood or tempo in this 15-minute work. Only two of the six sections have fast music (both marked Allegro), and the latter of them, the fourth movement, is only lively in its last half. The Prelude contains the best music: austere and bleak throughout much of its length, its dark themes and brilliant orchestral writing effectively conjure ominous moods and dark images. A grim Lento follows the Prelude and an equally grim one closes this work, reprising music from the Prelude. The middle of the five movements, marked Lento - Andante tranquillo - Lento, which maintains the gloomy atmosphere, is the second longest section and perhaps the second most substantial, as well. In the end, this must be assessed a compelling score, but one having a limited expressive range.