In the Fen Country is an orchestral tone poem and was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ first truly characteristic work for orchestra. As the name suggests, it is a musical evocation of the large flat region of Eastern England known as the Fens, an area which includes parts of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The city of Cambridge stands on the southern edge of the Fens; twenty miles north is the small city of Ely whose cathedral features prominently in this film.
Described by Vaughan Williams as a “symphonic impression”, the piece is meant to evoke feelings of traversing the bleak Fen landscape of East Anglia. It opens with a melody that portrays the wide open space by sweeping string orchestral textures.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Paul Daniel, from the Album Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine; In the Fen Country. Patrick Hadley: Fen and Flood
….Art is frequently a response to loss and the resultant absence, as generically in lyric poetry.
The elegiac impulse finds one of its most profound expressions in the response to landscape – often too vanishing landscape – in the work of what is sometimes called the English Pastoral School of musical composition, the heyday of which was the early twentieth century. The two instigators of English musical idyllicism, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) and Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934), had been fellow students at the Royal College of Music, London, in the 1890s, where both studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford.
Both men experienced the powerful intuition that Stanford, notwithstanding his technical mastery, spoke in a musical language insufficiently native, and, in a paradoxical way, insufficiently au courant. Stanford took his models in mid-nineteenth century German music – in Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms – and except for an occasional Irish inflection, his music sounded a good deal like theirs. But what musical language would be au courant?
Holst, who came from a long line of church organists and musicians, suggested to Vaughan Williams that they investigate the music of the rural parishes and from that milieu their curiosity took them quite naturally into folksong. As did Bela Bartók in Hungary and Romania around the same time, Vaughan Williams and Holst began to tramp the countryside in Somerset, Hampshire, Essex, East Anglia, and Norfolk, notebooks at ready, to collect and annotate the archaic song-tradition that they well knew was on the verge of extinction. These were the years from 1902 to 1905.
In addition to their project of preserving the treasury of the traditional ballads, love songs, and lullabies, both men had the notion that English folksong could become the basis of a novel and truly English concert music. That music would be new because its basis would be more ancient than that of the Germanic conservatory-vocabulary employed by Stanford and his peers.
There was one additional consideration – or rather a conclusion that both Vaughan Williams and Holst drew independently and that struck them as exploitable. The modes and melodic outlines of English folksong reflected the regional landscape; the tunes especially grew from the topography. As in Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad “The Solitary Reaper,” where the singing field-girl’s half-heard song seems to the reporter to express the “natural sorrow, loss, or pain,” that belongs to traditional life, in contact with the earth and season and sky: so too for the fellow folksong collectors, the tunes that they took down from those who sang them seemed saturated with an ethos – a character of place that imprinted itself on its denizens and that they bespoke in song.
As Vaughan Williams wrote many years later in his study of National Music (1934), folksong is the expression of “the absolutely unsophisticated though naturally musical man, one who is untraveled and therefore self-dependent for his inspiration [and] whose artistic utterance will be entirely spontaneous and unself-conscious.” Or as Hubert Foss writes of Vaughan Williams himself in his study of the composer, he “grows from the earth”; according to Foss, Vaughan Williams “likes that which grows naturally” and “his roots are in the past.” Of Holst, Wilfrid Mellers writes in Romanticism and the Twentieth Century (1962), that folksong studies taught him how to compose “in lines that are vocally modal [and] free in rhythm,” so that even his purely instrumental inspirations resemble “folk-song or plainsong” in their melodic outlines.
Folksong early began to inform and vitalize Vaughan Williams’ music, which it does already in the “symphonic impression,” so described, for orchestra entitled In the Fen Country, composed in 1904 and given its first performance under Thomas Beecham in 1907. In the Fen Country, in many ways Ralph Vaughn William’s first characteristic work, purports to represent its composer’s complex aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual response to the extensive southeastern marshlands of England – that half-aqueous world, with its dykes and canals, and its university and cathedral towns of Cambridge and Ely.
As Foss puts it in his study, in the Fen Country “gives a picture of the countryside where Vaughan Williams found folk-song,” adding that, “those frigid, frosty mornings that make the journey from Cambridge to Ely so soul-searching a trek are portrayed here.” Yet In the Fen Country quotes no folk melody. Rather, Vaughan Williams lets the pattern of folk melody animate his rhythmically free, generally slow, and modally minor instrumental lines. The work, lasting around a quarter of an hour in performance, opens with a long improvisatory sounding solo on the cor anglais, joined gradually in a freely evolving polyphony by other solo instruments. Although the motifs are songlike, the effect on the listener is rather of something non-human – “the place in itself,” perhaps. After a number of episodes, some quite portentous and brassy, In the Fen Country ends on a drawn-out viola solo that fades into silence.
….Concerning landscape – and its aesthetic and metaphysical meanings – the philosopher Roger Scruton has written in his study of Beauty (2009) that, “Landscapes… are very far from works of art – they owe their appeal not to symmetry, unity and form, but to an openness, grandeur and world-like expansiveness, in which it is we and not they that are contained.” In confronting the landscape then the percipient subject experiences something like a cosmic moment, understanding his own mortal limitations against the enduring earthly and vegetative environment that afford him a home and yet, being non-sentient, remains alien or at least indifferent to him. Yet vegetative though it might be, the landscape can stand as metaphor for something else sublime and, with respect to man, entirely prior and creative – namely the
divine. In this respect it is interest to reflect that neither Vaughan Williams nor Holst was conventionally religious. Vaughan Williams professed agnosticism but also took religious experience seriously; Holst inclined to thoroughgoing ecumenicism, showing an interest in mystic Christianity, Hinduism, and the whole range of esoteric traditions.