Recently the English Chandos Records label has been reissuing many of their major past recording projects under the classic CHANDOS label. They have used that label for a series called The Hickox Legacy in memory of the conductor Richard Hickox, who died on November 23, 2008 at the premature age of 60. Hickox was a major interpreter of music by twentieth-century English composers who gave particular attention to Ralph Vaughan Williams in his repertoire of performances and recordings.
Exactly one week from today classic CHANDOS will reissue their recording of Hickox conducting one of Vaughan Williams’ most intense compositions, his one-act opera “Riders to the Sea,” based on the one-act play by John Millington Synge of the same name. Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for this reissue; but, because it is a reissue, those who can’t wait will be happy to know that the original release is available for download from iTunes. Synge set his play on the Aran island of Inishmaan after he had heard the story of a man from the island whose body had washed up on the shore of the island of Donegal.
The theme of the play is that those who live on an island are obliged to live by the sea. However, the sea is not always an obliging provider, which means that those who live by the sea often die by it, just like the man whose death inspired Synge to write the play. However, rather than focus on the men who suffer this fate (as Benjamin Britten did in his opera Peter Grimes), Synge wrote his play for a cast of characters that was almost entirely female. The central character is the widow Maurya, mother of eight children, six of whom are male. At the beginning of the play, she has lost five of her sons to the sea. Over the course of the play, her one last son, Bartley, is preparing to sail to Connemara to sell a horse. By the end of the play, he, too, will have died at sea, the same as all his brothers; and Maurya is faced with the prospect of burying yet another male corpse.
Vaughan Williams composed his opera in 1927, which was relatively early in his career. His first symphony, completed in 1909, was a setting of poems by Walt Whitman with a far more positive impression of the sea; and in 1921 he had composed his “Pastoral” (third) symphony. His turn to Synge’s play involved dealing with far darker material.
Such darkness is far from rare in the Vaughan Williams canon. After all, he lived through some of the bleakest times in world history. (Lest the reader think this is an exaggeration, it is worth noting that, in an interview near the end of his life, Isaiah Berlin declared the twentieth century to be “the most terrible century in Western history.”) Nevertheless, it is worth considering that “Riders to the Sea” may have introduced Vaughan Williams to dark tropes that would serve him later, most specifically when he worked on the soundtrack for Charles Frend’s 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, a man-against-Nature narrative in which Nature prevails over man. That music would subsequently find its way into Vaughan Williams’ seventh (“Sinfonia antartica”) symphony, complete with the wind machine that establishes the setting for “Riders to the Sea” so effectively.
Because this opera is only about 40 minutes in duration, it is followed on this recording by two more optimistic compositions. The first of these is Household Music, a suite of three preludes, each of which is based on a Welsh hymn tune. The other is Flos Campi (flower of the field), a six-movement suite that was performed in 1925, the year in which Vaughan Williams began work on “Riders to the Sea.” This is one of several pieces composed to feature a solo viola (Philip Dukes on this recording). In the score each movement is prefaced with a Latin passage from the Song of Solomon. However, these words were intended to be recited (like the text passages that begin each movement of the seventh symphony), while the accompaniment for the viola is provided by a small orchestra and a wordless choir.
Both of these relatively short pieces do much to relieve the tension created by both the narrative of “Riders to the Sea” and Vaughan Williams’ poignant translation of that narrative into music. For his part, Hickox leads the Northern Sinfonia effectively through the full spectrum of moods covered by this recording. Chandos definitely deserves credit for keeping it in circulation.