Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Sky above the Roof, song for voice & piano

    Description by Robert Cummings

    In 1908 Vaughan Williams studied briefly with Ravel, soaking up, at least for a brief period, some of that French master's style, as well as that of Debussy and others. His First String Quartet (1908; rev. 1921) reflects those influences and this song, from the same year, also divulges similar traits. The text is even of French origin, coming from the poem "Le ciel est pardessus le toit" by Paul Verlaine (1844 - 1896). The translation is by Mabel Dearmer, wife of the Rev. Percy Dearmer, who co-edited the English Hymnal with Vaughan Williams in 1904 - 1906. Mrs. Dearmer asked the composer to do the setting for use in her play, Nan Pilgrim, and he complied, but very reluctantly.

    Vaughan Williams scored the song for voice and piano and marked it Lento. The melody he composed here is beautiful, a melancholy, slightly folk-flavored creation that seems to rise and fall as if in constant though quiet struggle with itself. It is in the sparse, chordal piano accompaniment that Gallic air can be noticed hovering above the music. The text begins, "The sky above the roof is calm and sweet/A tree above the roof Bends in the heat." While these words suggest a calm and peaceful scene in nature, they go on to ultimately divulge a mournful message about one's "tears" and "spent years." There are only ten additional lines to this text, and Vaughan Williams' gentle music is well-matched to their sadness. Lasting about two and a half minutes, this song will impress most listeners as one of the composer's most compelling early vocal efforts, even if it displays noticeable influences.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 ABC Classics
    2018 Chandos CHAN 10969
    2013 Lawo Classics LWC 1042
    2010 Albion ALB 002
    2009 EMI Music Distribution 98385
    2007 EMI Classics 387 364-2
    2003 Meridian Records 84158
    2003 Black Box Classics BBM1073
    1995 Koch 7168