An Oxford Elegy is a very unusual choral piece. The main thrust of the text is carried by a speaker, rather than being sung by a vocal soloist. The choir’s role moves from being a prominent part of the accompanying orchestral texture to being either a response to the spoken text or to presenting part of the poem. It is unlike almost any other English choral piece of its time but reflects Vaughan Williams’ awareness of contemporary musical ideas. Composed between 1947 and 1949, and given its premiere in Oxford in 1952, this treatment of music and text reflects works by composers as diverse as Schoenberg (A Survivor from Warsaw), Stravinsky (Oedipus Rex) and Walton (Facade and Henry V). The structure of the work is rhapsodic, changing speed frequently and relying on a verse-like approach which mirrors the poetry in form but which creates musical challenges to ensure coherence in performance. The secret lies in Vaughan Williams’ close attention to the fluctuations of mood in the poetry. He combined sections of two poems by the nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold. ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ concerns a mythical figure from centuries back supposed to haunt Oxford and the hillsides which overlook its ‘dreaming spires’ – for this is the poem whence that famous quotation comes. (It has to be said that any fan of Lewis or Morse will feel at home in this piece!) Vaughan Williams skilfully cuts extracts from the poem into parts of another Arnold poem, ‘Thyrsis’. This was a tribute, through comparison with a Classical poet, to his friend the poet Arthur Hugh Clough who died young. Thus, the many references to ‘Thyrsis’ in the piece are references to Clough, and his loss. Hence, the piece as an elegy. The moods through which the music move end with resignation and acceptance as the piece returns to its opening key and the choir urges all to ‘Roam on’ as the scholar gypsy does.
Getting to know the work: the most famous, and still most easily available recording is that by Sir David Willcocks and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. The poetry is given somewhat ‘classic BBC’ tones by the reader (interestingly at its first performance the reader was a baritone, Sir Steuart Wilson, a practice CBS will follow) but the performance has great warmth.