Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Oboe Concerto in A minor with Strings (1944)

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Ralph Vaughan Williams (October 12, 1872–August 26, 1958)

  1. Rondo Pastorale
  2. Minuet And Musette
  3. Finale

Pigeonholed by many as an “English nationalist composer,” Vaughan Williams is under-appreciated despite his nine masterful symphonies. His compositions, like those of Dvorák and Bartok, were influenced and colored by the nationality of their composer, but were not dominated by it. Vaughan Williams sought to free English music from foreign domination so that it would truly be the music of the English people. It took a strong man to reject the overpowering German Romantic tradition. Undaunted, Vaughan Williams did just that; his music derives its character from English folk song and the English choral tradition. As an old man he said, “to this day, the Beethoven idiom repels me.” Rejected by Elgar, he took lessons from both the Frenchman Maurice Ravel and the German Max Bruch, but absorbed technique, not their style.

The last fifteen years of Vaughan Williams’s life brought with them unprecedented creativity. In 1953, he told a friend: “I have so much music in my head I know I will never have time to write it down.” Perhaps it was his experience writing film music that accounts for the new energy, expansiveness and rich sonorities in his late work.

The Concerto for Oboe was written in 1944 for the virtuoso Leon Goossens. The intended premiere on July 5, 1944 was cancelled due to German bombing. The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent, gave the first performance in Liverpool on September 30, 1944.

Composed on the threshold of Vaughan Williams’ late style, the oboe concerto originates from a discarded sketch for the scherzo of his Symphony #5 in D major. Thus, the concerto shares the same style as the fifth symphony rather than being imbued with his late orchestral sound.

This concerto’s formidable difficulties are a challenge to the soloist; it must be handled deftly to avoid sounding awkward. However, between its poignancy and occasional “chattering,” the oboe’s finest attributes are exploited. Vaughan Williams eliminates the orchestral ritornello dictated by classic rondo form, according the soloist little opportunity for rest. The oboe, unlike the piano, isn’t a great concerto instrument. Not only can its distinctive timbre tire the ear, but also the orchestra easily overwhelms it. In order to expose the solo line, Vaughan Williams reduces the orchestra to 11 stands for much of the movement: there are only 30 bars of full tutti.

A lightweight first movement, the Rondo Pastorale is deliberately small. The plastic Rondo features the oboe with a rather innocuous melody in the Dorian mode. The goal of this movement is the cadenza. The weight of the concerto is in the finale.