How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
In 1938, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) set these words from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to music in his Serenade to Music. The influence of Vaughan Williams and his fellow composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934) on cultural history may not be as great as that of Shakespeare, yet they both gave impetus to a revival of British musical culture. Today, they are both considered the most renowned English symphonic composers of their day. Less well known perhaps but just as refined is the First Violin Concerto of the Belgian composer Robert Groslot (1951). In his music, as he himself notes, elements from Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Latin elements come together to form a new, rhythmic and adventurous musical language.
However personal his own musical language may have been, it is a good illustration of what Ravel once said about him, namely, that he was the only one of his students who did not try to imitate him. Vaughan Williams drew upon both his teachers and his personal experience to form a unique tonal universe: from the English choral tradition of Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, through Ravel’s emphasis on colour and timbre, to his fascination with English folk music.
As a student of Parry and Stanford, Vaughan Williams was deeply initiated into the English choral tradition from Thomas Tallis to Edward Elgar. During his studies, he also became friends with Gustav Holst. Both composers were enthusiastic followers of the movement to revive music of the Tudor period (1485-1603). They themselves conducted or sang in vocal ensembles and performed the new editions of the English madrigals of Thomas Morley and his contemporaries. But Vaughan Williams also went out into the field with a tape recorder, in search of traditional English folk songs. In Norfolk, Essex and Sussex, he recorded countless songs that he went on to publish.
Vaughan-Williams turned his deep-seated love for vocal music into works like Serenade to Music, a large-scale work for orchestra and soloists that he composed in 1938 as homage to the conductor Sir Henry Wood. What is distinctive about this work is that the vocal parts were custom-made for sixteen top British singers from his day, whose initials are written right into the score. The singers did not simply get together for short solo appearances, but formed a choir to give voice to the words of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The passage that Vaughan Williams set to music comes from Act V, a romantic scene where the lovers gaze at the stars and are seduced by the inaudible music made by the heavenly orbs.
During the first performance, Sergei Rachmaninov was in the audience and was moved to tears. The work found favour with the rest of the audience as well, so much so that it was performed four years in a row at the annual Last Night of the Proms. The only difficulty was to find suitable singers for the solo parts, and therefore Vaughan Williams quickly provided some arrangements, including ones for orchestra and choir, for four soloists and choir, and even for violin and orchestra.
The Proms are no stranger to the Belgian composer, conductor and pianist Robert Groslot (1951), either. Between 1991 and 2017, he and his orchestra, Il Novecento, were annual guests at the Belgian version of this musical celebration. Piano lovers know him as well from his participation in the Queen Elisabeth Competition for piano in 1978, where he was one of the laureates.
Since 2009, Groslot has been active principally as a composer. The majority of his compositions consist of works for orchestra, and in particular of concertos for a wide variety of solo instruments. Each of the concertos is composed without interruption, a form that he chose deliberately in order to create sustained tension throughout the entire work. For the violin, Groslot wrote two concertos. The first was composed in 2010 for the Polish violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, concertmaster of the Boston Philharmonic and the Berkshire Symphony. The Naxos label describes the work as a carpet of sound “laced with scintillating motifs both ethereal and playful as well as complex moods ranging from the dream-like and magical to the dark and violent."
Unlike Vaughan Williams, Elgar had no interest in the English composers of the Renaissance, and even less in folk music. As an autodidact, he drew his inspiration chiefly from continental European composers like Dvořák and Brahms. It took some time before he gained a reputation, but with his Enigma Variations in 1899, he established his name as a composer. With this work, he immediately put British music once again on the world map. After Henry Purcell (1659-1695), musical life in Great Britain was dominated over two centuries by foreign-born composers like Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn, but with Elgar, British music appeared to have gained a new lease of life. His First Symphony further reinforced his international renown: the première on 3 December 1908 was followed worldwide by some 100 performances in less than a year, and the work came to be dubbed “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony”.
As early as 1898, Elgar let it be known that he wanted to write a symphony modelled on Beethoven’s Eroica, inspired by the heroic status of British General Charles George Gordon. A year later, he had written one of the themes, and his wife Alice wrote that he had heard a few fragments of it. But because of financial and personal circumstances, it was not until 1907 that Elgar was able to finish the symphony. Little remained of his original idea.
After the première, the press was filled with superlatives. For example, The Morning Post called his First Symphony “[...] a legacy to coming generations”, and The Daily Telegraph described it as a work in which “thematic beauty is abundant”. The Evening Standard also complimented Elgar: “The composer has written a work of rare beauty, sensibility, and humanity, a work understandable of all.”