Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Vagabond

Context

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Vagabond was originally set for voice and piano and is part of a larger song cycle entitled Songs of Travel. Composed between 1901-1904, this was Vaughan Williams’ first major offering in the world of vocal music. Songs of Travel is a nine part song cycle, with text drawn from the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection. The song cycle is quintessentially British, and gives a fresh perspective on the Wayfarer Cycle style (E.g Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen or Franz Schubert’s Winterreise).

Although originally written for voice and piano, the Songs of Travel cycle has also been orchestrated for orchestra and voice. Vaughan Williams orchestrated the first, third and eighth songs, and his assistant Roy Douglas orchestrated the remaining songs in the cycle. Although the orchestral versions are still performed in concert halls, the intimacy and raw emotion from the original chamber version is often preferred.

 

The Music

The Vagabond is the first song in the cycle and sets the scene for the traveller. The style that starts off this song cycle is an homage Vaughan Williams’ love of Romanticism that came before. A vagabond is often used to describe someone who travels a lot without a home or job, which sets the scene for this song. The text is taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem of the same name and can be found here:

 

Give to me the life I love,

Let the lave go by me,

Give the jolly heaven above,

And the byway nigh me.

Bed in the bush with stars to see,

Bread I dip in the river –

There’s the life for a man like me,

There’s the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,

Let what will be o’er me;

Give the face of earth around,

And the road before me.

Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,

Nor a friend to know me;

All I seek, the heaven above,

And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me

Where afield I linger,

Silencing the bird on tree,

Biting the blue finger.

White as meal the frosty field –

Warm the fireside haven –

Not to autumn will I yield,

Not to winter even!

Let the blow fall soon or late,

Let what will be o’er me;

Give the face of earth around,

And the road before me.

Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,

Nor a friend to know me;

All I ask, the heaven above,

And the road below me.

 

The heavy opening marching chords highlight the steady and purposeful tread of the traveller as they make their way down the open road. The ascending triplet figure gives some glimmer of hope as the vagabond makes their way through what can only be assumed to be the British countryside. This opening instrumental prelude foreshadows the vocal line a few bars later. The dotted rhythms above the strict march chords below shows the dichotomy between the traveller’s head and his feet. The vocal line is light in style, even with it being originally sung by a baritone voice, and the dainty movement in the ascending phrases is light relief from the heaviness below.

The accompaniment sees the left hand act as the steady bass, changing between tonic and dominant chords for a large proportion of this song. Whereas the right hand moves in unison with the voice, offering harmonic colour to the structure of the song.

Vaughan Williams utilises the words of Stevenson’s poem to accentuate certain rhythms and pitches to create a really picturesque work. Just in the first stanza the line ‘Give the jolly heaven above’ is full of very subtle musical accentuation. Firstly, the bouncy dotted rhythms represent the idea of jolliness perfectly. Secondly, the ascending figure is a great example of word painting, like the traveller is heading to heaven one day, or he is remembering those passed on. These subtle links between the music and the text make The Vagabond a very successful example of nuanced word painting and scene setting.

Furthermore, the line ‘There’s a life for a man like me’ is also an important anchor within this song. This line is proclaimed loud and proud, showing the attitudes of the traveller. He is proud to be a vagabond, and ends this stanza with ‘There is a life forever’ which shows his acceptance of his lifestyle to last forever. The strength heard through the voice on these two lines is replicated throughout the songs on other important ‘story’ lines.

During the third stanza is where the atmosphere begins to change, largely due to a stark change in the accompanying music. The text for this stanza is as follows:

 

Or let autumn fall on me

Where afield I linger,

Silencing the bird on tree,

Biting the blue finger.

White as meal the frosty field –

Warm the fireside haven –

Not to autumn will I yield,

Not to winter even!

 

One could assume that the change in atmosphere here is to do with the changing of the season, from summer to autumn, which can bring more tumultuous weather. Vaughan Williams uses more word painting in this section to create different emotions. The second line ‘Where afield I linger’ is important in this section, as the vocalist literally lingers on the word ‘linger’ to create some sort of tension  that is threaded through this whole section.

The atmosphere changes again on the line ‘White as the meal the frosty field’, with the colour white representing something pure and perhaps even childlike. The accompaniment plays a delicate flourish of arpeggiated chords, whilst the voice takes the dynamic down and is much more delicate in its approach. The next line starts on the word ‘warm’ and the music reflects this by dropping down an octave in the accompaniment and rumbling up again, like starting a real fire. This whole section builds to a dazzling climax, which is then quickly eradicated in the next section.

The final stanza is a direct repeat of the second stanza of text, however the atmosphere has again been changed. Dissolved to a mere whisper, this final section starts very quietly. The original structure is back with the steady chords from the accompaniment and the dotted triplet movement from the melody and the vocalist. The idea that the traveller is not asking for wealth, hope, love or friends, but instead he just wants to continue with the idea of heaven and the road below him. The penultimate line ‘All I ask, the heaven above’ is proclaimed, like he is actually talking to a higher power above. Then the final line ‘And the road below me’ is back down to a gentle and quiet statement, as he is no doubt closer to the road then the sky and above.

The accompaniment repeats the chords once more, but this time placing them in a manner that is not as steady as before, which perhaps represents the traveller beginning to stop his journey. The Vagabond bears many different readings, from spiritual, to romantic, but it really is up to the listener to figure that out. For me, this work is quintessential in the development of the British song cycle as it lays the foundations for works to come. The rest of the song cycle is all about this traveller and the trials and tribulations of travelling.

A lot can be said for the nuanced style of word painting that really gets into the core of what the text is aiming to present to an audience. Vaughan Williams is one of the masters of this, and many of his vocal works are absolutely full of these subtle, but very important musical messages. May his legacy strongly live on.

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Ralph Vaughan Williams 'Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus': A Reminiscent Journey - Classicalexburns · 23rd August 2019 at 2:08 pm

[…] you enjoyed this blog then you might be interested in reading about Vaughan Williams’ song The Vagabond, or is ever-popular The Lark […]

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