Ralph Vaughn Williams – Quintet in D Major (1898)

The Quintet in D Major by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872–1958) is surely off-topic for a blog devoted to contemporary music. Its style owes a great deal to Johannes Brahms, and its composition date is firmly within the Romantic Period. But what stirs the interest of a contemporary hornist is the piece’s unusual performance history. After possibly only a single performance in 1901, it lay in storage for nearly a hundred years until Faber published it and authorized a “re-premiere” in 2001.

Scored for clarinet, horn, violin, cello, and piano, the quintet is one of several chamber works from composer’s twenties. After developing what would prove to be his original voice by his late thirties, he destroyed many early works. He placed others in a cupboard to gather dust. He also embargoed their publication or performance, a policy that his widow continued until the 1990’s when she finally agreed to allow publication.

The piece resembles the late music of Brahms, perhaps with a dose of mid-period Gabriel Fauré. But lurking in the background are glimmers of the mature Vaughn Williams. Already in the opening bars the clarinet leads a shift from D major to A minor that has little in common with its brooding German forebears. As one reviewer has noted, the piece “is a delightful work in its own right.” It exudes a freshness and humor that belies the mournful music from which it derives. Many listeners will likely be satisfied to enjoy that freshness without fretting over finer points of style.

A chief beneficiary of Brahms’s influence is the clarinet. Vaughn Williams captures perfectly for it the pathos and range of expression that Brahms pioneered. The piano also benefits. Various accounts describe the composer deprecating his own piano writing, but this piece deploys the instrument masterfully in the manner of Brahms. By contrast, the violin writing is melodious but conventional. The soaring violin of The Lark Ascending (from a dozen or so years later) is essentially nonexistent in this work. Perhaps weakest of all is the cello part, which just seems along for the ride.

The horn part is prominent but does not push any boundaries of range or technique. Still, like many of the composer’s orchestral horn parts it is tuneful and satisfying. There are occasional quirks, such as a moment in the slow movement where the horn becomes a broken record repeating the same four-note melodic segment. Literally twenty repetitions elapse before the needle skips forward. This passage is just high enough and long enough that it could give rise to embouchure fatigue. Another feature is that the horn often intones emblematic calls with the cello taking the role of “second horn”. That the cello never takes the “first horn” role seems like a significant missed opportunity.

Despite the hundred-year hiatus in performances, the quintet is rapidly making up for lost time. The Faber website lists six high-profile British performances between 2001 and 2013, but these are likely just the tip of the iceberg. A number of performances not listed are available on Youtube. The reading linked here is from the conservatory in Utrecht. Sheet music is also readily available. However, given recent shifts in the value of the British pound, importing the score directly from the U.K. may be cheaper than buying from sites offering it in U.S. dollars.

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