With the song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (“The Miller’s Lovely Daughter”), Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) crafts one of his most loved and deeply-felt works. Its beguilingly simple tale of youthful optimism and unrequited love is a universal one in which the protagonist, an infatuated young miller, lurches from fervent passion to the leaden depths of despair and, ultimately, perdition.
For many, the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams [1872 – 1958] evokes a dreamy, nostalgic vision of England – more Downton Abbey than Dickens – with folk music blending with tranquil, rural landscapes, and a suggestion of Choral Evensong with “hallowed traditions and hallowed halls”. And his most popular works – The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and Fantasia on Greensleeves – tend to cement his status as the most quintessential composer of English pastoral music.
A contemporary critic and composer, Peter Warlock, once waggishly remarked that Vaughan Williams’ music is “… too much like a cow looking over a gate”. However, a deeper familiarity with his music gives the lie to this caricature. Vaughan Williams is adept at evoking landscapes and nature: from rural idylls and bustling cityscapes, to bleak and desolate wildernesses. Far from being reassuring, his music often has the power to be deeply unsettling.