Ralph Vaughan Williams: In the Fen Country
Inspired by the fairly bleak and desolate East Anglian marshland, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ In the Fen Country is one of his earliest orchestral works. The Fens, known for being flat and dull, was an interesting, and perhaps unusual inspiration for Vaughan Williams. Described by the composer as a ‘symphonic impression’, In the Fen Country lasts was premiered in 1909, under the experienced baton of Thomas Beecham. Although perhaps not the composer’s namesake, this work has some magical moments from a youthful Vaughan Williams, that he explored and developed over his lifetime.
Opening with a plaintive cor anglais solo that aims to evoke the feelings of the East Anglian Fen landscape, this quintessential Vaughan Williams pastoral introduction sets the scene for the whole work. The lamenting voices that soon join the cor anglais begin to pair off as the strings take the chief melody, and the woodwind and horns counter with a rich melody. The sweeping strings are layered in such a way that creates swells in the orchestral texture, making the ebb and flow of the work a marvel to behold.
The melodies that Vaughan Williams uses throughout are certainly based on English folk songs. The use of modes and the movement of the melodies supports this, and of course this became something that the composer is still renowned for today. As the first climax is built and explored (c.5 minutes), the explosion of colour through the ensemble creates imagery of an expansive and grand horizon. The subtle shifts of texture develops the light and shade of the music. There are some really special moments of celestial beauty that are carefully placed throughout In the Fen Country. Often led by the strings and supported by the woodwind, these glimmers were signals of what was to come from Vaughan Williams.
Through the wave of climaxes and orchestral swells, there is a feeling of restlessness and a deeper realm of melancholy. The persistence in the themes, paired with the rich textures and timbres colours this work with a tinge of sadness. Some have described the last couple of minutes of this work as a type of ethereal dream. The work starts in a pastoral style with the cor anglais, but it ends with a solitary viola. Warm horns and lower strings lead into this melancholy ending, as the timpani rolls far into the distance. The viola reinstates the opening cor anglais theme, although this time the character and atmosphere has changed significantly. In the Fen Country concludes quietly, without any fuss.
Perhaps one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ first ever tone poems, In the Fen Country is a pastoral work that showcases the composer’s rich orchestral writing, folk-inspired melodic writing and his clever manipulation of atmospheres.
Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020