Ralph Vaughan Williams - Wind Works

And some notes on Toccata Marziale

In my homepage for September 2008 I briefly reviewed a splendid book Ralph Vaughan Williams' Wind Works by Jon Ceander Mitchell, published Meredith Music Publications $28.95. This is a truly noble tribute to one of England's most creative nationalistic composers of his day writes Donald Hunsberger in his Foreword to the beautifully produced definitive book on the Music for Wind and Brass by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

My own contact with the great man was sketchy; my mother-in-law the oboist Sylvia Spencer was a frequent performer at his Leith Hill Festivals, and spoke of him with great affection. My professor at Cambridge, Paddy Hadley, was a close friend, and I well remember him attending the premiere of a work by Patrick Hadley, Connemara; an awe-inspiring figure, he sat in the front row and swiftly went to sleep.

He and Holst consolidated the reputation of English composers, paved the way for Britten, Tippett and the host of great composers we have now, and of course laid the foundations for the contemporary wind band and wind ensemble.

The book itself is probably best browsed through; it is written in a pastoral discursive style reminiscent of much of the subject's music, and not only ranges over the music for pageants, the brass band music, the Flourishes for trumpets, the choral works with band and of course the military band works, but also touches on, amongst other topics, the Household Music (his answer during the war to the German's Gebrauchsmusik), the operas and orchestral music, his experiences in both World Wars, his connection with Alan Bush and the Communist Party, his work with the amateur music movement and his relationship with Cecil Sharp and English Folk-Song. Vaughan Williams says that with Sharp it was a case of "Under which king, Bezonian, speak or die?". You had to be either pro-folk-song or anti-folk-song, and I came down heavily on the folk-song side.

There is a script from a BBC broadcast introducing the BBC Military Band, an article on The Composer in Wartime from The Listener, words of the folk songs he used and, best of all, copious letters amply illustrating his pet likes and dislikes. For instance, writing about hisOverture Henry V he suggests that In any case the vulgar sentimental vibrato which disfigures most brass-band music should be strictly avoided.

One tiny but significant section of the book gives a brilliant account of the musical life of Britain especially between the wars. There is however one remaining mystery about Vaughan Williams' contribution to wind music which may never be solved. Apparently the composer was a friend of the captain of HMS Trinidad, who invited him to write a March for the ship's band. The story is that there was a competition between VW and George Lloyd, who had enlisted in the Royal Naval School of Music at the start of the second world war, and was drafted to HMS Trinidad. If this was so, Lloyd won the competition, his march became the official march for the ship, and the manuscript of the march by Vaughan Williams presumably ended at the bottom of the sea when the ship was eventually sunk by enemy aircraft.

Douglas Yeo, bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Musical Director of the New England Brass Band (do they play with vibrato?) writes of Dr. Mitchell's book: For wind and brass band conductors and players, Mitchell's is essential reading. I would add that this is an exuberant portrait of the times which will entertain and engross the non-musician as much as the conductor, performer, student and aficionado. We are all in Dr. Mitchell's debt, and it should find its way onto everyone's bookshelves. I am in his debt particularly as the dedicatee, an honour hardly deserved.


Revised 15th October 2008

The eighth commercial recording by the RNCM Wind Orchestra was always going to be tough, challenging Frederick Fennell & the both Eastman Wind Ensemble and the Cleveland Winds, also Denis Wick with London Winds, Dick Ridings with the Coldstream Guards and Eric Banks with the Central Band of the RAF. Anyone performing Holst, Vaughan Williams and Grainger must spend hours with the scores and Fennell's masterly analyses from the Instrumentalist Magazine, since Fennell has been conducting and writing about these masterpieces for half a century. What is particularly exciting was the news that late the same autumn the Grenadier Guards and their Director of Music Philip Hills, recorded all of the works of Vaughan Williams, including some arrangements.

The lack of real research into the music of Vaughan Williams is curious; Michael Kennedy, the music critic and author, suggests it is because VW did not bother to keep track of manuscripts, letters, papers and contracts, so that formal research is a nightmare, which even discourages our American colleagues.

My own researches threw up a few questions which I hope readers might be able to answer. In the first part I will discuss the thinking of VW on the place of the March Sea Songs, in the second explore some of the metric eccentricities of Toccata Marziale, suggest a few rehearsal strategies and list misprints which I have found in comparing the Boosey & Hawkes score and parts with the original, and with Fennell's list from the Instrumentalist of August 1976.


I am extremely grateful for the research by Professor Gordon Turner into this work; the books jointly written by Gordon and his son Alwyn on British Military music and especially "The Trumpets will Sound", The Story of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, published by Parapress in 1996, are required reading by anyone interested in our traditions and history. In my original article I wrote that nobody seems sure when the première of Sea Songs took place. Kennedy and others suggest that it might have been at a Festival of Empire in 1923 and we have known for some time that it was included in a concert at Kneller Hall in the autumn of that year

Recapitulatory Concert of New works and arrangements for Military Band

  1. 1. Overture "Othello" H.A.Kayser
    Sent in response to the request for original compositions written direct for military band, and approved for performance by the Committee of Selection.
    Conductor: Student L.Pay, L.R.A.M., A.R.C.M.
  2. 2. Russian Dance "Gopak" J.Verney
    Conductor: Student W. Fitz-Earle
  3. 3. Three Roundels Hebert Bedford
    (a) The King of Spades (b) The Queen of Hearts (c) The Knave of Diamonds
    Conductor: Student R.Marshall
  4. 4. Toccata and Fugue in C major Bach
    Arranged for military band by Student D. Plater, L.R.A.M., A.R.C.M. Conducted by the Arranger
  5. 5. Suite "The Planets" Holst
    (a) Mars (b) Mercury (c) Jupiter arranged for military band by Students L.Pay and G Smith
    Conductor: The Director of Music
  6. 6. Variations on Two Short Themes J.Verney
    (a) Chorale (b) Fanfare (c) Allegro (d) Aftermath (e) Humoreske (f) Militaria
    Conductor: Student B Gumbley
  7. 7. Suite Vaughan Williams
    (a) "Seventeen come Sunday" (b) Sea Songs (c) "My bonnie Boy" (d) Folk Songs from Somerset
    The Composer's first work for military band
    Conductor: Student S.W. Webber, A.R.C.M
  8. 8. Prelude "Beatrice" Percy Harrison
    Conductor: Student W.C. Windram

Earlier in the year, on the 4th July, as part of Commandant Colonel Somerville's plans to involve professional musicians in Kneller Hall, the Director of Music of the Royal College of Music, Sir Hugh Allen, conducted the Toccata and Fugue in C major by Bach. In addition, four world premières were given recorded in a hand-written programme in the Kneller Hall Programme Book, all of which would be "recapitulated" in October. As well as the Harrison and Keyser, the band played three movements from The Planets, surprisingly including "Venus" instead of "Jupiter", and the Folk Song Suite, including Sea Songs as the second movement. Why, if the first two documented performances include Sea Songs as the second movement of the Folk Song Suite, was it dropped?

I had always been wary of tackling this piece; it seemed, like so much Haydn, to work on two levels, the one superficial, the other requiring incredibly detailed work. Superficially, the Toccata Marziale seems to be a cheerful military band piece in 3/4 with a few cross-rhythms and displaced accents; closer scrutiny leads to a realisation of greater complexity. Does the main motif start on an upbeat every time, whether it comes on a crotchet or a quaver? At figure 2 is the melodic line really in 7/8, three before 3 surely it should be phrased 2/4 + 3/4, 2/4 + 3/4, at 4 is it possible to make those ff tell on the three different beats of the measure, and if we go back to the original manuscript, can we make the crescendos work on different parts of the measure?

The rhythmic problems are most clearly represented between Figures 6 and 7 - do the low brass and wind start the theme as an upbeat as do the high wind - and between 7 and 8 when the pulse seems to change into 3/8 3/8 2/8. Many of the phrases are actually of 5/4 bars, such as those between 13 and 14.

I found eventually that I could hardly conduct it at all, so free are the metric changes within the overall 3/4. It is essential to think in linear terms, as if conducting Tippett. The main beats are entirely subservient to the ever-varied metric divisions. As Frederick Fennell says, The Toccata is difficult rhythmically, not because of complex of diverse metres, but in the sophisticated placement of simple fundamental rhythmic impulses and in the constant demand for vitality of tonal production in their precise execution.

The orchestration was of course originally for the small scale British military band, twenty one lines in all, here given in accordance with Vaughan Williams: Flute and Piccolo, Eb Clarinets, Oboes, Solo and Ripieno Clarinets, 2nd and 3rd Clarinets, Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Bassoons, 4 horns in F, Cornets 1 and 2, Trumpets or Cornets, three Trombones, Euphonium, Basses, Timpani, Snare Drum, Cymbals and Bass Drum, a minimum of thirty six players. Extra clarinets and saxophones were added by the publishers, who took the published score made in the mid fifties from the parts. What is tantalising is that it was the first movement of a projected Concerto Grosso; the American scholar, Dr Robert Greschezky, found the rough piano score of the slow movement in a manuscript book at the British Library. He has scored it up, but as yet the "new" movement has not been published. The material was later the basis for the slow movement of the violin concerto.

A photostat of the original score also led me into revisions of the printed score and parts, in addition to those already listed by Dr Frederick Fennell in his masterly analysis and rehearsal plan in the Basic Band Repertoire series of articles in The Instrumentalist. The most cogent dynamic point is the clear placing of the crescendi on the last three quavers of the measure rather than through the whole measure or bar, giving a wonderful forward thrust to the motivic material. Below I have listed the principal changes, some of which may have been in turn altered by Vaughan Williams in publication; these follow his first thoughts. The most radical alteration is of the last measure which clearly in the manuscript ends with a cut off and a separated final note, but in addition to the forty corrections by Dr Fennell, I have added a further twenty culled from a comparison of the Boosey and Hawkes full score and a rather indistinct photostat of the original. We need a new edition.

NB One is on the way (2004) edited by Frank Battisti


Frederick Fennell's analysis and guide to rehearsal must remain obligatory reading and studying for every conductor. I would only add that because this is a dense, energetic, busy score, anything we can do to thin the textures, lighten the accompaniments, and add to the musical phrasing will develop the audience appreciation of what might seem either too trite or too complex a piece. The rhythmic variety needs to be stressed, not with heavy accents but with subtlety of phrasing.

I ask the players to play more legato when possible, since so much is staccato; it is important at the very start to stress that the basses are solo, to encourage them to phrase through to the Db, then to accompany...Dr Fennell advocates a separation of the first two notes, but for me the upbeat should lead into the main beat except when specifically marked staccato.

Try to make the trill and its turn into Figure 1 really tell by lightening the rest of the band and making a diminuendo in the basses. At figure 1 we have the problem of the agogic stress on the second beat, a line that suggests leading to the note. In the second bar, presumably sim implies repeating the staccato and the stress. 1 before 2 we have the problem of tenuto - strings have a method of using the whole bow with almost a crescendo at the heel and point as they articulate - try asking the band to play the passage staccato,
then non-staccato, then tenuto, with the eighth notes really "gluey" Figure 2 gives us our first mixed metre, two bars of 7/8 followed by a 2/4 two bars of 5/4

At Figure 3 this conspires to get us on to the wrong beat of the Bar, so phrase away from the second beat - again the trills and turns are important in inner parts, as are the syncopations in bars 3 and 4. Keep the feel of 2 3 1 2 3 1 until the climax at 4. Figure 4 is difficult to bring off, ff treated canonically - invite each group to make a really big crescendo, late, and then to phrase away as soon as they hit the ff and the lower and later groups to make a bigger gesture with this climax, building through the bar at 4.

At figure 5 Dr Fennell suggests that we need to make a choice between oboe and cornet; if you have two superb players, it may well work with both, but in any case I invite the bassoon to play the counter-melody strongly, and the rest of the accompaniment to be in a very low piano, virtually pp.

Balance is crucial before 6, making sure that the 2nd and 3rd parts of the triads are strong (perhaps even stronger than the top). Invite the trombones and euphonium to phrase their line through. 6 presents more rhythmic complications, tenuto 3/8 3/8 3/8 2/8 3/8 1/8 Meanwhile here and in the basses 3 bars before 7, the stress must be on the first note of the motif, not the second or 4th, until the re-affirmation 1 before 7, in ff but for me a poco ff - we have 15 barsto sustain, and at 7 itself rather more interesting than the main motto is the running passage of semiquavers (16th notes) in the saxophones and bassoons. 3 after 7 across the 3/4 in the semiquavers we begin to hear the 6/8 variant introduced (pre-echo of the 6th Symphony) - 4th measure of 7 gives us 8th notes phrased 3+3+2, answered by the same phrase again, interrupted on the upbeat to 3 before 8 by a heavily stressed canon, which I play ff followed by poco diminuendo, with the horn and tenor saxophone notes accented and meno f.

At 8 the brass must be light with late crescendi, and strong stresses in the syncopated canon between the upper wind and the 3rd clarinet, alto saxophone and cornets, remembering that we need to balance this very carefully. The 3rd and 4th of 8 should in my view stress the tenuto quality and the climax is the augmented version of the theme 3 before 9, hidden in the saxophones and bassoons.....this is the largest ff of the movement so far......but we will need even stronger dynamics later...control

Between 9 & 10 the texture is that of chamber music - ask your players not to anticipate the dininuendi, and then to take risks in the pp accompagnato, while alto saxophone and euphonium try for a perfect blend to set the scene for all of the later entries. Between 10 and 11 the textures thicken, the tessitura goes higher, so encourage your players not to work hard at the mf, crescendo and f, they will tell very easily. Figure 11-12 has a rhythmic phrasing of 3/4 3/8 3/8 2/8 5/4 3/8 3/8 3/8 3/8.

I take a pp at 12 for the chords, placing them carefully and asking everyone with sustained notes to make the crescendo late. At the end of the 4th bar of 12 we have successive phrases in 5/4 changing to 3/4 2 bars before 13 with the same passage repeated in lower dynamics from 13-14. I take this as a 12 bar release of dynamic tension, but be careful to keep the energy, through the trills, little accents in the long notes, phrasing the 5/4 away (for me) from the 1st beat.

Figure 14 - Gb major, the flattened submediant, beloved of Schubert, and the low point - your players must all realise that they have 25 bars before the recapitulation, and so must pace this very carefully. First make sure the basses are pp, and the trombones a noble but not too strong p, horns and saxophones possibly piu p - stress the importance of the diminuendi, perhaps ask the tutti at 15 to think in pp, it will sound loud simply because it is fully scored, and then take all of the dynamics down 15-16, poco f at 16. Strong cross accents 3 before 17, with very clear semiquavers will add to the energy level without the need for louder playing, 17 a poco fortissimo please, and keep building into the allargando, still retaining some energy to take you over into the a tempo, with a piu fortissimo on the 4th 8th note in the 5th bar of 18, phrasing to 19 unless the hall is very resonant

19-21 brings back procedures, phrasing, articulation and balance concerns that we have already rehearsed above. At 21 I ask the players to drop away after each canonic entry a little, and for the woodwind to make their crescendo quite quickly, brass a little later, still holding something in reserve in all sections for the final fff peroration, with its staccato last note.


  1. 3 after figure 2 Tutti crescendo starts on second beat
  2. 3 after 3 side drum crescendo from 3rd quarter note
  3. 5 after 3 bassoons and basses no crescendo
  4. 4 bassoons and basses crescendo on 2nd beat to ff on 3rd
  5. 5 after 3 oboe, tenor sax, cornets, trumpets trombones, euphonium, no crescendo
  6. 4 after 3 oboe, tenor sax, horns, cornets, trumpets trombones, euphonium crescendo for 2 quavers (eighth notes), ff second beat
  7. 5 after 3 all other players, crescendo on last 3 quavers (eighth notes)
  8. 4 after 5 oboe cresc 2nd beat, horn and bassoon cresc 3rd beat side drum cresc 3rd beat, ff in 4 before 6
  9. 1 before 9 Tutti diminuendo last 3 quavers (eighth notes)
  10. 2 after 9 fl, Eb oboe and clarinets dim last 3 quavers (eighth notes) , tenor saxophone diminuendo last 2 quavers (eighth notes)
  11. 2 before 10 fl, Eb oboe cornets, climax on 2nd beat of measure don't cresc to next measure
  12. 1 before 15 diminuendo last 3 quavers (eighth notes) only
  13. 15 Tutti no crescendo
  14. 1 after 15 tenor sax, bass trb, and euph poco cresc 1st beat
  15. 16 poco mf
  16. 5 after 16 all parts which have crescendo printed, should be marcato instead
  17. 1 before 21 piano subito
  18. 21 2 and 3 clarinets dim last beat
  19. 1 after 21 cresc in woodwind semiquavers on last beat only
  20. 4 after 21 tutti woodwind start crescendo immediately, tutti brass and basses poco crescendo until last 3 quavers (eighth notes) then hairpin up
  21. 3 before end side-drum crescendo last measure no tie to last note


  1. additional to his list in The Instrumentalist
  2. 3 after 3 b missing from one of the parts
  3. 3 after 5 Oboe last note is F natural
  4. 1 before 10 3rd clarinet 2 quavers (8th notes) should be A & G
  5. 3 after 12 Bassoon 2 remove the b from the minim (halfnote)
  6. 2 before 13 2nd cornet F trill to Gb
  7. 4 before 21 solo & 1st cornet, it is Eb in lower octave, E natural on last beat in upper
  8. 2 measures before end 2nd cornet should be C E F sharp not D

One of my former students, Dr. Jessica Kun, prepared a scholarly edition as part of her Dissertation at Arizona State University. She can be contacted for further information atjvkun@hotmail.com

Since this article, a new edition has been published by Boosey and Hawkes, edited by Frank Battisti incorporating all the above research.