Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus’: A Reminiscent Journey

Good afternoon classical music fans! I hope you are all well and are raring to go for another very exciting blog on a work that I saw live not long ago – Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. This piece was performed by the fantastic London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), and admittedly I did not know much about the piece prior to the concert, but I fell in love with it as I am sure you all will as well!

As an avid collector of English folksong, which, as we saw from looking into The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams used a lot of throughout his compostional career. As can be seen from a menagerie of his works from Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis to In the Fen Country, Vaughan Williams relies heavily on folksong, a modal style of writing and his characteristic triplet rhythmic structures. Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (to which I shall now refer to as Five Variants) is no different as it is based on the ancient folk tune Dives and Lazarus. In England (perhaps around the 16th Century) it was traditionally sung as a Christmas carol to the words ‘Come all ye faithful Christians.’ However, in Scotland it was known as ‘Gilderoy’ and in Ireland as ‘The star of the County Down.’  The story of Dives and Lazarus derives from the notion of karma – with Dives being representing the rich, and Lazarus the poor. Dives refuses to offer food to Lazarus and instead orders his men to whip him and his dogs to bite him. As both of the men die, angels carry Lazarus to heaven, and the serpents drag Dives into hell. As the men cross paths once more, Dives asks Lazarus for a drop of water (which he is unable to give him), and he complains about his external punishment. The lyrics are short and read as follows:

“As it fell out upon a day, Rich Dires he made a feast, And he invited all his friends, And gentry of the best.

Then Lazarus laid him down and down, And down at Dires’ door: ‘Some meat, come drink, brother Dives, Bestow upon the poor.”

Five Variants was commissioned in 1939 from the British Council to be played at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. This concert was also to be conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, who was a champion of Vaughan Williams’ music. Boult also conducted the UK premiere of Five Variants, which took place in Bristol 1939 (just after the war had broken out). Some 19 years later, Boult conducted this work at Vaughan Williams’ funeral, which was held at Westminster Abbey. One of my favourite quotes is from biographer, Michael Kennedy who emotionally described the funeral:

“Into the silent of the Abbey came the first notes of the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. It was as if Vaughan Williams himself had spoken. The tune which he had loved all his life, which came from the soil of England, ageless and anonymous was the perfect device to create a mood of remembrance which will haunt those who experienced it to the end of their days.”

Vaughan Williams’ affinity with this work was incredibly strong, and as the title suggests this orchestral piece has an introduction which is then followed by five quite contrasted variants to which the composer described as:

“These variants are not exact replicas of traditional tunes, but rather reminiscences of various versions in my own collection and those of others.”

As previously mentioned, modality is a key (no pun intended!) characteristic of Vaughan Williams’ composition style. Many of the variants, including the original theme are based quite solidly in B modal minor. The outline roughly plays out like this:

  • Introduction and Main Theme: B Modal Minor
  • Variant I: B Modal Minor
  • Variant II: Allegro Moderato, B Modal Minor
  • Variant III: D Modal Minor
  • Variant IV: L’istesso tempo, D Modal Minor
  • Variant V: Adagio, B Modal Minor

It is quite obvious where each variant begins due to tempo and atmosphere changes. Each section is very unique, but all inherently familiar due to the main theme shining out in all of the sections. The work begins with the whole ensemble (strings and harp) and the harp takes a major role in initiating the main theme of the work. The cellos and violas take the main theme here also, and the harp begins to take an accompaniment part. The theme feels very reminiscent and Vaughan Williams’ delicate, yet very powerful string writing helps to achieve this atmosphere. The second variant also highlights Vaughan Williams’ use of the different string choirs, and he places the violins in octaves, with the violas and cellos taking a harmony accompaniment part here. Throughout the whole piece the harp has a very pertinent part as it switches between melody and accompaniment, and always offering rich harmony and beautiful timbre which brings the ensemble to life.

The third variant opens with a duet for a solo violin and harp, so if you’re a little lost in the music this section can help you to get back on track! The change of both tempo and time signature also emphasise the change in variants. The third movement moves into a more lively 3/4 time. Variant 4 comes away from this and brings a much more solemn atmosphere, with the violas leading this sections main melody. The final variant sees the strings subdivided even more so than before, and each part creates this fantastic contrapuntal effect until it reaches the climax, which utilises chromatic movement to get back to the original B Modal Minor. This climax is then answered by the harp and solo violin, before slowly fading away into the distance.

Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus is a strangely ambiguous piece, with the original folksong being anonymous and difficult to trace, and the music being made of ‘variants’ rather than variations, which are based on a collection of different folk tunes. Vaughan Williams’ style here is incredibly sophisticated and quintessentially English, which is what I absolutely love about Vaughan Williams as a composer. The score for Five Variants is essentially the memories and pensive thoughts of a devoted folksong collector.

There we have it, some more Vaughan Williams for you all to immerse yourself in and enjoy at your leisure. An absolutely wonderful composer, with such an impressive output spanning over a long career. No doubt I will do many more blogs on Vaughan Williams, and if you can’t wait for that I wrote a blog last year on his wonderful The Lark Ascending which you can read here: https://classicalexburns.wordpress.com/category/ralph-vaughan-williams-the-lark-ascending-1914/

Keep your eyes peeled for more blogs coming very soon!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

London Philharmonic Orchestra – Bryden Thomson

Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony No. 9 in D Major’: The Fourth Movement

Dearest readers, it has been far too long since the last blog in this Mahler set, but I was finishing off a large part of my Masters degree, so sadly this had to take a backseat. With only my dissertation left to go, I am happy to say I am back and looking forward to writing a lot more on classicalexburns! To round off this wonderful Mahler symphony, this blog will focus on the fourth and final movement of this breathtaking symphony. You are in for such a treat with this movement, so let’s get right down to it and finish this quartet of blogs off in style!

Referring back to Bernstein’s theory that every movement represents a farewell to an aspect of life (read more in the previous blog), this movement is a farewell to life itself. The form of the finale can be read in two different ways, either as a five-part rondo, or a set of strophic variations. The movement is slow-moving both in regards to tempo and the development of themes. With the movement mostly based around the strings, some sections adopt a four-part style of writing, which emphasizes Mahler’s deceptively complex and rich orchestrations. Beginning with the first complex theme, which is richly harmonized around Db major (although Mahler does go astray from this a lot throughout the movement), the theme resonates back to the Rondo-Burlesque third movement. For the first ten bars only the strings are playing, which builds up to the two bar bassoon solo at b.11. With this in mind, there is certainly an argument that there are two main themes in the fourth movement, which act as the foundation for the rest of music. The first, a ‘Lebewohl’ (‘Farewell’) theme based on a descending scale: F-Eb-Db and secondly the ‘Tragic Fanfare’, which is based around the sequence C-Cb-Bb. Throughout the rest of the symphony the tragic fanfare has protested somewhat against the finality of death itself until the finale, as David B. Greene argues, the Lebewohl theme accepts the struggles of death and becomes at peace with the idea of the final separation from life.

Before moving on, I’d like to draw attention to the first two bars of the movement, played by just the violins. With a definitive unison Ab to begin, this could represent the dominant chord, however, Mahler’s use of a Cb in the next bar is off-putting as this sounds a minor third above an Ab: i.e not the dominant. However, I see the Cb as an embellishment to set up the very slow-moving downward sequence that leads into b. 3 which is where the rest of the strings enter. This downward scale comprises of Bbb, Ab, Gb, then leading to an F in the next bar. A unique choice of notes that can be harmonised in a plethora of different ways, which is only the beginning of Mahler’s rich harmonic writing throughout this movement. With the many interpretations of just these five notes (including the Cb), it is possible that they foreshadow the use of modes later in the movement (Db minor vs Db major). So to support an earlier notion, the first two bars really set up a whole lot of meanings and interpretations for the rest of the work. The possibilities really are endless with Symphony No. 9.

From b. 3 the rest of the strings enter, and this warm sound reminds me of a sigh, like a sigh of relief that the acceptance of death has finally been digested and acknowledged.  Mahler’s string writing embodies beauty and his extraordinary sense of harmony is also celebrated throughout the movement. Many have said, and still do say that this movement exudes mournfulness and sadness, however, I disagree with this and believe that the movement is hopeful for what comes after death, and the acceptance of this alone is enough for the music to keep developing. The ‘turn’ theme is repeated in different parts, with each string section playing it as an embellishment to the rest of the parts. The bassoon solo at b. 11 sets up the winds to enter in b. 13 with the ‘turn’ theme once more. The dynamic moves from pp to after the solo heightens the emotive drive behind this dazzling display of Mahler’s austere string writing. Although the bassoon, contra bassoon, horns and flute come in for various bars (up until b. 27), it is very sparse, and the main attraction is within the strings, which is ever-developing the ‘Lebewohl’ motif. A lot has changed by b. 28 where most parts have been filtered out to leave just the contra bassoon, violin I, celli and basses. The dense counterpoint that has been seen in the previous 27 bars gave a certain character to the piece, and this is changed when the instruments left sound at very different ranges, making it sparse and vulnerable. The change of key to four sharps here points towards the parallel minor of C#. However, this becomes problematic the deeper we go into the movement. The contra bassoon and celli, naturally sounding lower, really indicate the dichotomy between the parts, especially with the violins playing in a particularly high octave here.

B. 34 sees the flute and bassoon enter the mix, and some simple counterpoint is structured around the ‘turn’ motif once more. A violin solo leads us into the next key change of the movement at b. 49, which heralds a previous motif. Dynamics are interesting here as the horn is marked as whereas the strings p. This is to perhaps accentuate the ‘solo’ lines of the thick textures Mahler has created. This section moves around a range of different keys from F major, to E major and usually coming back to D major. There is a real emphasis of Mahler recycling previous themes and re-harmonising them, and his use of extravagant chords such as a dominant German augmented-sixth plays with the duality of D and Db that returns throughout the movement. Building up a dense texture once more, Mahler incorporates the whole orchestra, with the exception of flute, trumpet and percussion. Call and response is utilised slightly further on in b. 77 – 83, with the winds shadowing the strings. At b. 88 there is another change back to four sharps in the key signature, which reflects the same change that was made in b. 28. As a five-part Rondo this makes sense as a later section will usually reflect that of a previous change in the rondo form. This section is led in by the clarinet with the english horn and flute interjecting. In general, this section is much more emphatic to D major, although there is a somewhat juxtaposition of C# minor and D major in some bars – again playing with the idea of tonal duality.

By b. 99, the winds have taken over and only the celli and basses remain in the string section. Led by the clarinet, this section is much less dense in texture and the decrescendos from to pp are incredibly effective when the strings come back again in b. 107 marked as ff. A sense of momentum is only ever felt in small bursts and this is certainly one of theme, with the building up of texture. By b. 121 Mahler has modulated back to Db for the final few pages of the movement. From b. 122-125, there is a suspended Cb held by both violin parts which then begins to slowly descend through Bbb-Ab-Gb and then landing on F in b. 126 (does this seem familiar?). Another example of Mahler recycling previous themes and compositional techniques, this descending sequence marks the beginning of the next section of the movement (Tempo I). With embellished phrases from the horns and celli, this section vividly reflects the ‘turn’ motif previously heard. The texture here is incredibly dense and all parts are now involved. The dichotomy between D and Db is also developed here and the use of Neapolitan chords really accentuates this duality idea. The horns are very much at the forefront, until the orchestration dilutes to just a string orchestra for four bars, before bringing the winds back into the music. The small change between 4/4 and 6/4 time is accentuated in b. 137, although this is not taken much further.

The tempo has become slower somewhat, and this is where the end is beginning to draw closer and closer. This section is the last where there is a full orchestra playing. From b. 146 there are some incredibly high chords led by the violins, which has been referred to as ‘crisis chords’ and they provide us with the beginning of the Coda section. From here the harmony and instrumentation become fragmented and the tempo is beginning to get even slower than before. These suspended ‘crisis chords’ are accentuated around this fragmented instrumentation, which builds emotion and drama into the narrative (if you should so choose to follow it). The coda is comprised of only strings, which could signify the orchestra dying away like life. The use of chromaticism here is also interesting as the Coda moves quite simply between the tonic, dominant and sub dominant. If I am quite honest, the last 24 bars or so are genuinely the most perfectly put together and for me nothing can surpass it – it is truly beautiful. Mahler quotes one of his own songs from Kindertotenliefer where he used the music setting of the words:

“The day is beautiful from those heights”

The ultimate consolation is found at the end of this symphony and the as the music slowly unfolds with its last breaths the silence and stillness waits for those last notes. Perhaps one of the emptiest moving passages written, the music gradually and very peacefully slips away after one final farewell. Death has come, but it came after being accepted and embraced.

The fourth movement is incredibly spacious and hymn-like in many places, making it incredibly effective in a number of ways which I hope I have highlighted in the above blog. One thing that is incredibly sad is that Mahler died in May 1911 without actually hearing the Ninth Symphony performed. Due to this, a lot of people have assumed that this ending was his conscious farewell to the world, as he knew that his own death was soon approaching. Therefore, the premiere was in 1912, conducted by Bruno Walter. The work is extraordinary and has received much attention from scholars and fans alike:

“It expresses an extraordinary love of the earth, for Nature.” – Alban Berg

“It is terrifying, and paralysing, as the strands of sound disintegrate … in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.” – Leonard Bernstein

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is my all-time favourite work as, for me, it has everything I want in a symphony: complexity, drama, emotion and rich orchestral writing. I genuinely find it so moving, and I recall seeing it live at the BBC Proms a few years ago and it gave it another dimension from me that nobody can take away. I hope you have enjoyed this four-part mini series on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, it has certainly been very fruitful for me to reignite my love for this work and delve deeper into the context and music of the work. Keep your eyes peeled for more blogs coming very soon!

Thank you to everybody who has supported me this far – this quartet of blogs are dedicated to you all.

Happy Reading!


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Recommended Recording: