A number of ‘anniversaries’, some might say ‘coincidences’, attach themselves to the 80th birthday concert: an all-Ralph Vaughan Williams affair, of the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus at the City Hall on the 4th of June.
This year also sees the 60th birthday of the Phil’s (sorry, they seem to prefer SPC) former chairman Julie Smethurst and a co-sponsor of the concert.
Vaughan Williams was on the French Western Front 100 years ago in 1916 with the Royal Army Medical Corps and the concert’s main work, his cantata Dona Nobis Pacem, was first performed in 1936, the year the chorus was formed.
It had been commissioned by the Huddersfield Choral Society to mark its centenary and VW was still in broadly the same frame of mind he had been when he penned his discordant and acerbic Fourth Symphony a year earlier.
He later declared that he wasn’t sure he liked it. “All I know is that it’s what I wanted to do at the time,” he said. He always insisted the symphony was not programmatic and that it should heard as ‘pure music.’
If we take his word for it that had nothing to do with the political turmoil Europe was in at the time, it and foreboding were uppermost in his mind with Dona Nobis Pacem, the final words of the Agnus Dei in the Latin Mass – Grant us peace.
While being pals with the likes of Bertrand Russell may or may not have had any influence on the symphony, the cantata had everything to do with what he experienced and saw on the battlefields of Europe during World War One.
Among the things he eye witnessed was the wholesale carnage at the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 which left over one million people dead.
The work is in six continuous parts and for its text VW drew on three of Walt Whitman’s poetic reflections of the American Civil War: Beat! Beat! Drums! Reconciliation, and Dirge for Two Veterans – which he originally set in 1914!
There is also a quote from a House of Commons speech by John Bright trying to prevent the Crimean War; sombre sections from the Book of Jeremiah; and parts of the Latin Mass.
The concert begins in rather more joyous circumstances with VW’s 1920 setting of O Clap Your Hands and end in equally happy realms with the fifth of the George Herbert settings that comprise Five Mystical Songs from 1911, Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing.
Just before it is the Shakespeare-inspired Serenade to Music he wrote for 16 famous British singers of the day in 1938. Later, realising the difficulty inherent in finding 16 first-rate soloists for future performances, he made four arrangements of the work.
They included one for much fewer solo singers, choir and orchestra, the version it will be heard in here.
Two purely instrumental works making up the concert are the Fantasia on Greensleeves, a 1934 arrangement by Ralph Greaves for flute, harp and strings drawing on VW’s regular usage of it, and everyone’s favourite Vaughan Williams piece, The Lark Ascending.
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will be on the City Hall stage, as will the Sheffield Bach Choir who performed Dona Nobis Pacem in November 2014 under Simon Lindley. Overseeing proceedings on this occasion is SPC music director Darius Battiwalla.