by George Ball
Now’s the time when the birds feast on berries and seeds. I’ve often puzzled over this rich diet of 100% birdseed. One friend conjectures that it’s probably good for long flights southward. Another friend maintains that birds congregate around feeders and baths more to “socialize” (what diction these days!) than to stock up on reserve jet fuel. “That would be the bears, honey,” she said to us. Still another told me that birds eat far more berries (or “flesh” as we call it here at Burpee) than hard seeds. Since putting out our 2013 catalogue keeps me from the extra work of close, careful bird observations, I cannot report definitively.
I shall say one thing: birds have been singing less in this dry, relatively insect-free year of 2012. I deeply miss their songs. I was reminded of this absence by a very warble of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams on our local classical music station here in the Delaware Valley. Like a deep exhalation during yoga, or a cool wet washcloth to the head after yoga, Vaughan William’s nearly perfect symphonic music brings life back to the dying.
In however diluted a form, today’s “pop” owes whatever musical value it has to the contributions of Ralph Vaughan Williams. There is some originality in, for instance, Miley Cyrus, whose hybrid-like phrasing can be as plaintive and graceful as Patsy Cline one moment and forceful and gutsy as Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey the next. Ralph Vaughan Williams hybridized too—very widely on the levels of the symphonic orchestra and “art song” (vocalist and piano), drawing elements from the diverse gene pool of folk music spread across and throughout every corner of the British Isles. He in turn has left an enormous mother lode of these traditional melodies for others to mine.
One unexpected case is Nino Rota, who borrowed several sublime melodic themes from Vaughan Williams’ “Norfolk Rhapsody #1” for his own surrealistic soundtrack to Federico Fellini’s 1960 movie, “La Dolce Vita”. Rota uses Vaughan Williams’ earthy, simple motifs to contrast with the sterility of cosmopolitan Rome, and particularly the glittery, noisy existence of the protagonist, Marcello, whose hellish life is surrounded by newly built modernist ruins. Vaughan Williams’ poetic themes, reprised here and there by Rota, remind the viewer that alongside the ugliness of life, there is something beautiful and pure, lingering just beyond its dead surface.
There are sheep that get in the way of Marcello’s sports car, and the larger-than-life American movie starlet puts a kitten on her head (shades of the Amazon past) and, later still, she howls like a wolf. Rota’s pastoral melodies function as both lamentations and sirens. “There is something wilder, lovelier and more natural than this”, the music seems to say. Profoundly ironic.
But there is no such irony—none needed—when you encounter Ralph Vaughan Williams for the first time. His music offers luxuriant, pure beauty, similar only to Handel’s. Many complain that he is too “English”, which is like bemoaning Bach or Beethoven for being too “German”. In fact, he is utterly unique, able both to transcend as well as descend, like Orpheus, his sources of inspiration. A few other composers have also tried their hand at hybridizing classical music and traditional folk song: notably Dvorák, Kodály, Stravinsky, Janácek, and Bartók. Striking that they’re all Central Europeans. What sets them apart—like the British too—from modern classical composers is an almost religious devotion to the folkloric music traditions of their homelands.
Vaughan Williams limned a song tradition in the British Isles that is richer than any other. He also used, as all composers did long before his time, natural sounds of the landscape and, in his case, especially around East Anglia. Also called “The Fens”, this happens to be the home of the modern (150 years) British seed industry. It is flat and dotted with swamps. It reminds me of parts of Illinois where I grew up, so I loved travelling there back in the ‘80s on business, visiting the many great seed companies. The vistas are heartwarming to anyone who loves farmland or grew up around it.
I recall sophisticated friends from college who were either Londoners or schoolmates passing through London. They would find out I was in the UK on business and phone me asking what on earth I was doing up there. “Why did you get stuck in Norfolk?” (laughter) and “God, when are you coming down to London?” Of course, London is one of the world’s great cities, but I felt disoriented every time this happened. They were worldly, but unaware of one of the world’s most quietly beautiful areas. Desolate, still and covered with lush crops most of the year. To them it was like outer space. What little the world knows of seeds, birds, estuaries! My secret view was “When are you all coming up to East Anglia?” Besides, I had work to do: new flowers and vegetables to find, seed to harvest and sing about.