2008 is beginning to look like a turning point in Vaughan Williams reception history. Performance-wise there was Richard Hickox’s revival of The Pilgrim’s Progress, no more than semi-staged but the opera’s strongest showing to date (thanks in part to Roderick Williams’s sensational incarnation of the title role). Sir Andrew Davis directed a sell-out Prom on the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Two documentary features neatly complemented each other. Tony Palmer’s O Thou Transcendent: the Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams ran on Channel 4 at the start of the year. Typically ambitious if unashamedly sprawling, Palmer’s film presented Vaughan Williams as a pessimistic doom-monger obsessed by War, a sort of Anglo-Saxon Shostakovich. In response, Michael Kennedy wrote of VW’s admiration for Disney and his positive attitude to the hustle and bustle of city life.
John Bridcut’s alternative portrait, originally shown on BBC4, is revived now for DVD with financial support from the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Its structure is almost entirely chronological, more narrowly and intimately focused on VW the man. There’s not much to criticise, unless you find the early setting of Walt Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans (subsequently incorporated into Dona nobis pacem) a mite overused and the absenteeism of Gustav Holst a puzzle.
In 2008 Bridcut’s revelations were deemed sufficiently sensational to prompt the Daily Mail Online to run a piece under the title “Sonata for three: How composer Vaughan Williams shared his bedroom with a mistress 40 years his junior... and his wife”. VW seems an unlikely sex god but if making Ursula pregnant does not make his music more exciting it should, I think, make us reappraise the unaccustomed romantic warmth that entered his idiom around the time of the Serenade to Music and was still very much present in the Oboe Concerto and the Fifth Symphony. Whatever qualities such masterpieces are traditionally held to embody, Bridcut, like Palmer, wants us to shift our perception of them as the epitome of the English countryside towards a more nuanced understanding. It is dangerous to oversimplify cause and effect but nor should we ignore the impact of biographical or political events on an essentially abstract art. Bridcut prefers us to see VW’s passion for women as a key driver of his creativity, marshalling an array of female contributors ready to admit that, on some level, they fell in love as soon as they encountered him. That said, it’s a premise argued yet more convincingly in his companion film, Elgar, The Man Behind the Mask. There’s no trailer for that, nor for Bridcut’s The Pleasures of Delius, such as might be offered in a sophisticated interactive menu.
Bringing together an impressive range of interviews and newly filmed performance footage, The Passions of Vaughan Williams is in many ways refreshingly conventional, even old-fashioned. One novelty is the way Bridcut likes to show us his interviewees at rest, just listening, then responding emotionally to the music we too experience as if seated alongside. Such musically engaged talking heads include Michael Kennedy, Anthony Payne, Robert Tear, Hugh Cobbe and Jill Balcon. That so many of his featured protagonists have now left us makes the footage unexpectedly poignant. Shortly before her death aged ninety-six, Ursula recalls her first taxi ride with the composer – a classic case of love at first sight – and is encouraged to read her poetry aloud. The succinct overarching narration, voiced by Bridcut himself, is understandably more lucid.
In 2008 The Lark Ascending topped Classic FM’s listeners’ poll for the second year running. Today, after a decade in which a clutch of VW’s bite-sized ruminations has achieved unprecedented popularity, albeit co-opted into a narrower vision of national identity than that favoured by the composer, his larger works are finally being aired in UK concert halls with something of the frequency of their Soviet-Russian counterparts. That is unequivocally good news and it can be argued that Bridcut’s production represents a quietly significant stage in the process of re-evaluation.