by Walter Simmons
“O THOU TRANSCENDENT”: THE LIFE OF RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS ● Tony Palmer, director; Natl O of Hungarian Radio, Tamas Vasary, cond; Natl Youth O, Sian Edwards, cond; et al. soloists and commentators ● TPDVD 106 (DVD: 148:00)
This is a documentary that all admirers of Vaughan Williams will want to own—or at least, to see. Released in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the great composer’s death, it is a leisurely overview of his life, enriched by substantial excerpts from some of his most significant works, heard in superb, sympathetic performances. Offering their own perspectives on his creative work, his habits, and his character are a wide range of individuals who knew him and/or worked with him and his music. There are also numerous photos and filmclips of the composer himself, and even a running commentary that appears to be in his own voice. For those who consider Vaughan Williams to be one of the greatest half-dozen composers of his generation, as I do, the foregoing overview will be sufficient stimulus to run out and acquire the DVD immediately; many other admirers of his work may feel the same as well.
How earthshaking the actual content of the documentary is will depend on the viewer’s familiarity with the composer’s background. Although I was already familiar with a good deal of the information, I found it an unalloyed delight to watch, if for no other reason than the simple pleasure of hearing what the likes of Sir Adrian Boult, Michael Kennedy, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Imogen Holst, Michael Tippett, Harrison Birtwhistle, Andre Previn, and even American composer John Adams had to say about him, and to see them say it.
Tony Palmer, who has devoted much of his career to documentaries on musical subjects, has his own particular point to make: that, rather than a rumpled, benevolently avuncular old codger who composed nostalgic musical depictions of the English countryside, Vaughan Williams was a dashing ladies’ man in his youth, and a deeply pessimistic, free-thinking agnostic later on, who lived through the two World Wars, in the first of which he volunteered to serve, witnessing the gruesome carnage first-hand; that he stood by his first wife, wheelchair-bound for most of their marriage, with loyal devotion for 56 years, but perhaps expressed his rage at this fate in his Fourth Symphony. Though these biographical details may be unfamiliar to some, most admirers of Vaughan Williams’ music are well aware that there is a good deal more to it than benign pastoralism and folksong rhapsodies, lovely as those may be.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of bloopers, such as the implication that the Fourth Symphony is based on the Dies Irae motif, which it decidedly is not; in fact, what it is based on is much closer to the B-A-C-H motif, but it is not that either. Secondly, pop music figure Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys talks about the revelation he experienced upon discovering the Tallis Fantasia while in grammar school, at which point we then hear the Fantasia on Greensleeves. And in his zeal to emphasize the horrors that the composer faced as part of his wartime duties, Palmer includes some clips of shockingly grisly carnage for which some viewers may not be prepared.
But these quibbles are indeed minor matters. The composer’s many admirers are more than likely to find this documentary to be as boundlessly fascinating as I did.