Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine
David Hill conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of The Garden of Proserpine on Monday 30 May 2011 at Dorchester Abbey.
Vaughan Williams’s attraction to the Pre-Raphaelite poets and artists – D. G. Rossetti, Christina Rossetti and A. C. Swinburne among them – lasted from about 1895 to 1905. If there seems now to be little common ground between the sometimes over-heated poetry of this group and the more austere VW, one should recall the romanticism of his early works. This has only recently become evident through the publication and performance of several songs and chamber works which he either withdrew after his return from the 1914-18 war or made no effort to encourage further performances. Even if they contain only glimpses – but sometimes much more than that – of the mature VW, they provide a fascinating musical map showing how he reached the glorious individuality of the post-1909 works. It is also perhaps significant that in 1896 he married a woman who bore a strong resemblance to a Rossetti painting.
The setting of Swinburne’s The Garden of Proserpine was composed between 1897 and 1899, about the time he was working on A Cambridge Mass for his doctoral thesis which is also adventurous in treatment of the orchestra. Proserpine is scored for soprano solo, chorus and orchestra and lasts about 25 minutes. The poem is uncut but VW made three slight changes in the text (probably only slips of his pen and of no significance). Proserpine was goddess of the underworld in Greek mythology and Swinburne describes the garden where the dead dwell. The poem contains perhaps his most often quoted passage:
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods there be,
That no life lives forever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Of all the hitherto unpublished Vaughan Williams works, this seems to me to be the nearest in style to the composer who was to write A Sea Symphony and Toward the Unknown Region. The work is dominated by a memorable adagio theme introduced by the strings in the ninth bar and recalled at climactic moments. Some of the themes derive from it, contributing to the air of decay and sadness but at the same time avoiding morbidity. The ending, fading into silence, is echt-VW.
Anyone hearing this beautiful work for the first time must be as mystified as I am that its composer should have abandoned it without, apparently, making any effort to have it performed. He never even mentioned it in correspondence. Time, I’m sure, to make up for a century of neglect.