Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Wasps Overture 


Ralph Vaughan Williams composed the incidental music for a production of Aristophane’s The Wasps in 1909. The music is quite lengthy, with there only being a handful of full recordings of the full production. The overture, however, has gained more success as a stand-alone concert piece. Vaughan Williams arranged an orchestral suite from the music from The Wasps, and it was here that the overture really came into its own. 

Before embarking on The Wasps, Vaughan Williams spent three months in Paris studying orchestration with Maurice Ravel. Some say they can hear and recognise Ravel’s orchestration in the music, however this can’t viably be proved. The music is very much Vaughan Williams’, and the slight changes in orchestration really lift his music onto the next level. The music he composed for The Wasps is one of only three incidental music projects that Vaughan Williams completed. 


The Music

The concise overture ironically has barely anything to do with Greece or wasps. The buzzing at the start of the overture is the only hint to the title, with the rest of the music standing proudly alone. The buzzing at the start is really effective and the swells of the sound are accentuated by muted brass. It certainly feels like music is about to fly away until the brass play a glimmer of the melody as the clarinets segue the music into the next section.

The jaunty melody is rich in orchestral colour, with the strings leading and then handing the melody over to the boisterous brass. There is strength and unity all the way through this overture, with the small woodwind interlude providing light and shade within the music. Glimmers of the buzzing can be heard, although this never grows into fruition, rather it is used for timbral effect. 

The quick tempo and bouncy melody creates real excitement within the music, which then makes the slow middle section even more effective. Led by the strings, this new melody is quintessential Vaughan Williams with the way it develops and from the low to high registers and how it yearns towards the English pastoral style. 

The melody is passed around from soloists emerging in the orchestra including a lone french horn, cor anglais, clarinet and violin. The fluctuation of the melody creates a colour palette for Vaughan Williams to work with. The tempo quickly reverts back to the opening speed, with the music beginning to sound slightly more frantic. 

As the intensity begins to build across the orchestra there is a sense of drama building with the constantly moving melody fragments. The unison parts are bold and create a strong wall of sound. The brass are utilised much more here, with them often leading the melody lines. As the music comes down in dynamic, the foundations of the melody are slowly rebuilt up in the last minute of the overture. The piece comes to its conclusion with three bold tutti chords. 


Final Thoughts

Although seldom performed today as a suite, the overture from The Wasps is still performed as a concert opener. There have been over 30 professional recordings of this overture now, with more no doubt on the way. The music is comedic, dramatic and full of delightful melodic treats.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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