"There [is] a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend, which comes to us all in the face of great artistic experiences. I had the same experience when I first heard an English folksong, when I first saw Michelangelo's Day and Night, when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge or had my first sight of New York City – the intuition that I had been there already."
--Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
It's late November 1989. Patrick and I are sitting in my room at my mom's old house in Orem, Utah, making wedding plans. I've got my little pink clock radio tuned to KBYU; Bach Partitas and Chopin Preludes play softly in the background. We're busy figuring out logistics for the ceremony itself (to be held in Salt Lake City) and our two small receptions: one in Provo, Utah, and one in Englewood, New Jersey.
All at once, I become distracted from our conversation by the most beautiful piece of music I've ever heard. Patrick and I sit and listen, bewitched. The gorgeous waves of sound transcend the poor radio's tinny speaker and wrap us in a bubble of timelessness. When the piece ends, we both exhale at the same time; it seems as though we've been holding our breath for several minutes.
The announcer, in the mellow tones cultivated by all classical radio DJs, informs us that we've just heard Ralph Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 5, and I am officially in love. I must learn everything I can about this mysterious British composer. I've never heard of him before, yet there is something in his music that awakens deep recognition--what Plato calls 'anamnesis'-- within me.
Remember, it's 1989. In the dark days before Teh Google, I have to hunt down information on Vaughan Williams on foot; fortunately for my compulsive research needs, Patrick returns home to New Jersey, where he has his musicologist father's extensive library to hand. In my Christmas package, Patrick includes a cassette that features Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 2 and the piece that follows this post: "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis."
The Fantasia captures my devotion in the same way the Fifth Symphony does. Based on a hymn tune by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis, its modal antiphony evokes the stark beauty of an ancient church. I listen to it again and again, and over the next several years collect recordings of as much of Vaughan Williams's work as I can find. I love it all; it's as if this composer wrote music specifically for the desires, needs, and tastes of my spirit, all decades before I was born. I appreciate and enjoy most classical music from the past thousand years (with some notable exceptions), but in Vaughan Williams's music, I often feel that I hear the voice of God Himself.
In 1993, a friend and I hear the New York Philharmonic perform Symphony No. 5 in Avery Fisher Hall under the baton of the great André Previn. At the end of the Fourth Movement (the Passacaglia), we enter the same kind of trance Patrick and I experienced years before, nearly forgetting to breathe, then gasping and flinching in unison as the audience around us breaks into thunderous applause.
Not long afterwards, I learn that a prominent NPR radio personality listens to the Fifth Symphony before every airplane trip, because if he dies in flight, he wants it to be the last piece of music he's ever heard. I can understand why; for certain people, the music of Vaughan Williams is potent magic indeed.
I went to Youtube to see whether any of RVW's music was to be found; it was an odd coincidence that the very first link that popped up was that of an old friend, Christiaan Crans, conducting Indiana University's Ad Hoc Orchestra playing the Tallis Fantasia. I remember hanging out with Chris late one night discussing our deep, almost religious fan-love for Vaughan Williams. I haven't seen Chris since we both moved away from Manhattan nearly seven years ago, so tonight I had a double delight. I expect very few of you will sit through all 17 minutes of the piece that follows, but as Emperor Joseph II is fond of saying in the movie Amadeus, "There it is."
For more Music Monday, stop by the fabulous home of Soccer Mom in Denial.