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