Vaughan Williams at war

Posted: April 10, 2014 by westminstermusiclibrary in Uncategorized

It was our local residents’ turn to enjoy Westminster Music Libraries’ latest Behind the Lines music workshop, which featured English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He obviously has a huge fan base in Westminster as this session was packed, one of our best attended workshops so far. As always, we were joined by musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on flute, cello and vibraphone, as well as the pleasure of having Vaughan Williams expert Ceri Owen join us. RVW Event 31-3-14 (3)

The musical focus started with A Pastoral Symphony, with the RPO musicians introducing snippets of it to everyone. The third of nine symphonies Vaughan Williams’ wrote, it was composed between 1916 and 1921, and premiered in 1922. It reflects Vaughan Williams’ experiences in France as a wagon orderly during WW1, it is not (as commonly believed) a reflection of the English countryside. The group went on to debate the similarities between the two landscapes but concluded that they must have differed during war time. The group looked in depth at the modes and tonalities used in the opening of the symphony, comparing it to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring which use similar patterns.

The final movement of this symphony includes a wordless soprano line so we learned it as the first interactive group musical activity. In performance, this is often sung by the soprano from a distance to create a sense of space and emptiness, adding a ghostly lament effect to the music that depicts the tragedy of the war. The possible origins of this musical idea were discussed; did they lie in Vaughan Williams interest in the Anglican Church, relating to Gregorian chant? Or in his enthusiasm for English folksong? The discussion also included the validity of the term ‘symphony’ in the case of this piece as it doesn’t conform to traditional symphony structure, similar to the other two descriptive symphonies he wrote; A Sea Symphony and A London Symphony – are they really only extended tone poems?

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams

After a tea break we moved on to look at another work – Sancta Civitas (The Holy City). The musicians demonstrated the mysterious opening section of the work then participants chose various tuned percussion instruments, supported by the cello and piano, and had a go at playing the interesting chords Vaughan Williams uses. We soon ran out of instruments, so the rest of us joined in by singing the melody above the chords, usually played by an oboe. Workshop leader Detta and Ceri demonstrated their conducting skills between instrumentalists and singers. First attempts were a bit shaky, but with some breathing and relaxation advice from cellist Roberto, the group started to play more comfortably as an ensemble. RVW Event 31-3-14 (2)

Vaughan Williams expert Ceri then filled us in with a bit of background to Sancta Civitas, explaining that it was first performed in Oxford during the General Strike in 1926, an environment far away from the political and economic problems people were facing which had led to the strike, and that this was not easy for Vaughan Williams. She questioned the ambiguity of the music; the text, taken mainly from the Book of Revelation, expresses the triumph of good over evil and is ultimately positive, but much of the music Vaughan Williams composed, including the close of the piece, possibly suggests otherwise. RVW Event 31-3-14 (1)

We then looked at another section of the work. With such interesting discussion between the musicians and participants, which could have happily carried on for a long time (including on the immortality of the soul!), we found ourselves rapidly running out of time. We dispensed with the instruments and quickly learned to sing the mournful descending phrase ‘Babylon the great is fallen’, before putting both this and the opening section together for the grand finale to a very interesting and enjoyable afternoon.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, who opened Westminster Music Library in 1948, believed passionately that composers should be ‘useful’ and that music should be for everyone. We are sure he would have been delighted with the outcome of the afternoon’s workshop.



Early Years
It’s a sunny spring morning in London and the young crowd gather for the very exciting music workshop at Westminster Music Library. There are lots of sleepy faces, but not for long… Everyone gets their wake-up call with a very lively and energetic warm up; lots of wobbling, shaking, clapping and moving!  Workshop leader Detta then introduces the very talented Royal 3Early years 29th MarchPhilharmonic Orchestra musicians on violin, cello and vibraphone, who then introduce us all to excerpts of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony. ‘Pastoral’ relates to rural scenery and the countryside so we decided to let the music take us on some journeys through different rural settings; the first musical journey takes us for a walk up a steep, snowy mountain. It’s hard work so we have to stop at the top for a rest before making our way back down the other side.7Early years 29th March The second musical journey then takes us into the park where a squirrel is climbing a tree; it’s autumn so the leaves are lovely and red. Finally we take a trip to the countryside and the beach where there are lots of sheep and cows. We’re lucky it’s such a sunny day outside!

Primary Years
Another sleepy, shy group of children, but they are soon full of beans and ready for active music making after a movement, rhythm and vocal warm up. Looking again at Vaughan William’s Pastoral Symphony, the group learn to sing a fragment of the melody from the first movement. Following that, the group decide on a new rhythmic idea and pat it out along with the music played by the RPO musicians.

The workshop leader decided it would be a good idea to create music based on different landscapes in memory of Vaughan Williams, who was very much influenced by different places in the world. The first group stayed in London and portrayed the image of Big Ben in the morning mist with the birds twittering. Group two took us to the hot Sahara desert, and as they looked across the sand dunes they saw some shepherds with their camels. Group three took us further south to Antarctica where they played music to represent the enormous glaciers and melting ice.3Primary years 29th March
We were fortunate to have a Vaughan Williams expert join us expert during this session; Ceri has just completed her PhD on Vaughan Williams at Oxford University and was able to answer some questions on his life. He lived from 1872-1958, and spent a number of years living very near to Westminster Music Library; in Cheyne Walk on the Chelsea Embankment, London. Ceri was able to answer one of the children’s questions “why did he fight in the war?”, explaining that he felt it was his duty to be a soldier in World War I, but he was too old to fight on the front line. Instead, he was part of the ambulance services, helping other injured soldiers, and he also looked after horses in the war (which may have influenced his Riders to the Sea opera). He came up with the ideas for the Pastoral Symphony during WW1 whilst in France, and started writing them down when he returned to England. Ceri told us that he was inspired by the landscapes and scenery in France, such as the sunsets. He also took influences from the military bugle music. So this pastoral symphony actually painted the picture of a dark, ruined, war-zone France instead of pastoral England. Ceri also explained that Vaughan Williams was very eager to draw attention to the folksongs of England; eliminating the idea that there were none. In fact, some of the motifs in the Pastoral Symphony were based on English folksongs.4Primary years 29th March
Other questions about the life of Ralph Vaughan Williams included:
What did he do in his spare time?
He liked walking, community music and conducting choirs
What did he play?
He was organist at a church in Stockwell but he wasn’t very good, he also played the violin
Was he only popular in England?
He also became famous overseas, particularly in America and Finland (after Sibelius!)
Was he a family man?
His first wife died in 1951, his second died in 2007 and was 30 years younger than him
As we discovered through today’s workshops, Vaughan Williams loved to travel and experience different places; much of his music reflected his interest in landscapes and scenery. We also discovered that he loved his home country – England, as well as France, the New York skyline, Antarctica, and many other places around the world.

As part of Westminster Music Library’s Behind the Lines programme, we are delivering no less than six creative projects in schools all over Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. The second of these projects took place last week, with the final performance on Friday 28th February. Working with a group of pupils aged 7-8 from Westminster’s St Matthew’s C.E. Primary School, workshop leader Tim Steiner and three musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) explored the works of English composer Gustav Holst, focusing on the famous Planet Suite, which produced lots of inspiration and ideas for themes from outer space. Planets

The group visited Westminster Music Library for an introductory session, where the pupils were able to discover the vast selection of books and music scores on the shelves. Creativity really took hold once we moved into the school itself, with stimulating workshops using a combination of instruments such as “djembes”, to play the sinister rhythm from Mars, and other percussion instruments to support the RPO musicians while they played the Jupiter theme. aliens[2]

The final performance was a fantastic showcase of all the music everyone had come up with, including this song devised by our young participants:

It’s gloomy and it’s gloopy
And it’s shiny and it’s scary
The aliens are powerful
They’re glowing and they’re hairy

The creepy crawlies are so sad
They’re black green brown and blue
But sometimes they are happy
Cos they’re just like me and you

The first Behind the Lines adult workshop of the New Year took place last week at Westminster Music Library with musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  There was a high demand for places at this event so we had our fullest group yet of music enthusiasts.  Continuing on the theme of Holst, this workshop looked at The Hymn of Jesus and The Planets.

As workshop leader Tim welcomed everybody to Westminster Music Library, he invited everyone to say a little about themselves. We all soon learned of the variety of people who attend these music events; musicians, composers, former military band members, students, researchers, and plenty of people who said they ‘had nothing to contribute to music’, ‘never played an instrument before’, but ‘loved listening to it all day, every day’.  But they had to change these statements after today’s workshop! Holst Adult Workshop Rehearsals

For the first time in this series of events, everyone was encouraged to sing.  So after waking our voices with some warm-ups and exercises, we all learned to sing the opening theme from The Hymn of Jesus. The step-wise movement of the phrase made it easy enough for everyone to sing. The melody was also played by the RPO musicians and their instruments – cello, trumpet and flute – and it was discussed how the same melody on different instruments can sound so different and have such different effects on the listener.

This workshop also gave some people a chance to pick up a new instrument for the very first time! With spare French horns and flutes, as well as other melodic instruments such as vibraphone and tubular bells, everyone split off into groups to learn a section of The Hymn of Jesus. It was hard to master the wind instruments for those non-wind players, but everyone made a great attempt! 

This led us into the tea break, in which there was plenty of discussion about Holst.  Westminster Music Library contributed to this discussion by providing scanned images of original documents and letters written by the famous composer to music critic Edwin Evans. Evans’ collection of thousands of scores, letters, documents, and books was given to Westminster Libraries after his death in 1946. The original vocal score of The Hymn of Jesus was on display for all to see.

 After some tea and biscuits, everyone resumed position for a short discussion on Holst and his contribution to the war, the most prominent being his role as Music Organiser with the YMCA, working with demobilised troops in Salonika and Constantinople. Here, he taught and encouraged people to play music, many for the first time. 

 Another great output during the war was his suite for large orchestra, The Planets. The well-known opening 5/4 rhythm of the first movement Mars, the Bringer of War was introduced to the group, who then went on to experiment with it; different rhythms, taking out/adding notes, different accents etc. But in the end, the group decided that the original 5/4 rhythm has the most power, creating a ‘menacing’ atmosphere, and suits the war era in which it was produced. The group also experimented with the interesting opening melody of Mars, swapping around notes and discussing the effects. The grand finale of the workshop was a performance of the Mars themes by all the participants – so everyone did contribute to the music, even the non-musicians!

This workshop represented a great tribute to Holst as he dedicated his life to teaching amateur musicians and encouraging everyone to get involved. We are pretty sure he would have loved to have been there!

On Saturday we went on an amazing journey to outer space!  The first Behind The Lines workshop of 2014 was the most jam-packed in the series so far as Westminster Music Library transformed into a spaceship which travelled to Mars and Jupiter! 

 As you could probably guess, the musical theme for these workshops was The Planets; a famous suite of orchestral music in seven movements composed by Gustav Holst during the First World War.  Despite his German-sounding name, this composer was in fact English and composed other famous music such as I Vow To Thee My Country and In The Bleak Midwinter.

 With The Planets in mind, the early years workshop was very exciting as the group created a robot who would go travelling into space.  With his square head, triangular body, tentacles and squiggly legs, he was guided into space after a huge countdown and blast-off, all animated with loud, exciting music.  His piercing red eyes were represented by a trumpet and there was a violin and bassoon to play the role of other body parts.  As the robot travelled into space and started his landing, we could hear the famous theme from the first movement Mars.  A loud trumpet siren commanded everyone to go out on a space walk, floating over the surface of mars and then after an exhausting journey it was time for everyone to fall asleep. The workshop was lively and action packed so everyone deserved a snooze by the end of the space expedition!

 The second workshop of the day was also based on Holst’s Planets, after an energetic warm up.  This group of older children had a more informative lesson, learning about Holst, his life, and his music.  They were then introduced to the project theme and learned the rhythm of the catchy Mars motif by tapping and clapping it out.  There was lots of musical talent in this group; from violinists and cellists, to guitarists and trumpeters.  So with these instruments the group split off into 3 – strings, brass, and percussion.  The focus then turned to another movement of the suite; Jupiter.  This movement has quite a few recognisable themes but the group focused on just one.  After splitting into teams again to play the melody, a counter-melody, and a rhythm section working on different parts, the final performance was a fantastic showcase of all the music everyone had come up with. Holst - Primary Years Performance


Well done to everyone who was involved in these workshops – they were a great success and lots of fun!  We are thoroughly looking forward to the next workshops in the series for children at the end of March which will take a look at the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams; another hugely successful English composer from the first half of the 20th century.

Last week, Westminster Music Library held the second adult music workshop in our Behind the Lines series.  The focus of this three hour session was the composer Maurice Ravel and his musical output during and after WW1. Ravel - Adult Workshop 1

Ravel, and as a consequence his music, were deeply affected by three things during The Great War; his rejection from the army due to his diminutive stature, the death of his Mother, and his own failing health.  One of his greatest successes, Le Tombeau de Couperin, was completed near the end of the War. This suite for solo piano, influenced by the French Baroque composer François Couperin, was composed between 1914 and 1917, and is based on a traditional French Baroque suite, being made up of 18th century-style dance movements. Ravel dedicated each movement to the memory of his friends (or in one case, two brothers) who had died fighting in World War I.

During the workshop, this music was the centre-piece of the composition and performance by the participants and musicians.  Divided into two; the first group was  percussion-based with a variety of African drums, while the second was melodic with xylophone, marimba, and stringed instruments.  Taking as their inspiration Ravel’s Forlane – a transcription of an Italian folkdance from Le Tombeau de Couperin – the group joined together for a very exciting finale.  There was a lot to remember between entries, notes, and rhythms, but everyone played brilliantly and created a wonderful piece of music. Ravel - Adult Workshop 2

As well as Le Tombeau de Couperin, other Ravel works such as La Valse, Daphnis et Chloé, and Frontispice formed part of the group discussion on Ravel and his music.  The group had a chance to listen to a recording and study the score of Frontispice; written for two pianos five hands and at only a minute and a half long, everyone agreed that it is a great insight into Ravel’s thoughts and emotions during that time. Although short, it is clear that this great composer was struggling to come to terms with rejection, loss, and failure, and feelings of bleakness, anger, and confusion brought about by the horrors of the War. All our participants agreed that this workshop had been a great success, with lots of enthusiasm, inspiration and stimulating conversation. 

This session marks the end of our focus on Ravel for Behind the Lines, next year we turn our attention to the music of two giants of English music – Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

As part of Westminster Music Library’s Behind the Lines programme, we are delivering no less than six creative projects in schools all over Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. The first of these projects took place last week, with the final performance on Wednesday 11th December. Pupils from Sion Manning School with Musicians from the RPO


Working with a group of pupils aged 12-15 from Sion Manning Roman Catholic Girls School, Workshop Leader Tim Steiner and 3 musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) explored the works the composer Maurice Ravel and the devastating effects of World War One. At the outset of the project the pupils were taken to see the RPO rehearse at Cadogan Hall, where, among other pieces of repertoire, they got to hear Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, which he wrote during the war.


The group then visited Westminster Music Library for an introductory session, where the pupils were able to discover the vast selection of books and music scores on the shelves. The sight reading skills of the three RPO musicians were certainly put to the test, when each pupil was given the opportunity to put their chosen score in front of the musicians to play on the spot!


Creativity really took hold once we moved into the school itself, with stimulating workshops using a combination of instrumental composition, poetry readings, and vocal exercises. The resulting final piece was extremely haunting, with the pupils using interesting instrumental effects to create an eerie sound world, as well as beautiful wordless vocal lines. 'Preparing' the Piano for some Unusual Effects

Last Saturday, Westminster Music Library played host to more exciting and successful Behind the Lines workshops for Early Years and Primary Age children.  Led by the talented musicians of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 27 lively children from 2 year olds to 10 year olds took part in the workshop based on the music of Maurice Ravel; a Romantic, French composer who was particularly influenced by early composers such as François Couperin.

After a few fun games to wake up our bodies and an introduction to the cello, violin, flute and trumpet, the children in the Early Years workshop started creating music to represent animals of the jungle; elephants, monkeys, and there were even some worms!  Some of the children may even have a future career in conducting as they took on the role as music leader, instructing everyone what to play and on which instruments!Early Years Workshop 7th December 2013 

The children in the Primary Age workshop were extra enthusiastic and excited about the wide range of interesting instruments which included a marimba, African drums, and lots of other percussion – some even brought their own instrument.  As an older group, the children were able to discuss composers and different genres of music, looking at different types of scores taken from the Music Library shelves.  They were then introduced to Ravel’s Fugue from Le Tombeau de Couperin, excellently demonstrated by the RPO musicians.  This piece is a six movement piano suite written between 1914 and 1917, each movement in the style of a Baroque movement.  Ravel then orchestrated the suite in 1919 and dedicated each movement to a friend who had died in WW1.  Taking the theme from the second movement ‘Fugue’, the children then set off to creating variations on Ravel’s music, splitting into groups of keyboard and percussive instruments.  At the end of the session there was a show-stopping performance, with excellent solos from some of the children, singing from the whole group, and lots of fun had by all!Primary Age Workshop 7th December 2013

Many of the children in the workshops on Saturday demonstrated their skills, talent, and knowledge of music, which was very impressive to see and hear; from improvising to knowledge of composers, to describing different styles of music.  These workshops are an excellent opportunity for children and adults to explore, exhibit, and develop their knowledge of music further, as well as learning about the musical output of some great composers of the 20th Century as a result of World War I.

Elgar and the First World War

Posted: November 26, 2013 by westminstermusiclibrary in Uncategorized

Last Wednesday night, Westminster Music Library played host to Simon Baggs, professional violinist and our resident Behind the Lines expert on the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar.

Simon Baggs Playing Elgar's Violin Sonata



Elgar’s music has held a fascination for Simon since his teens, what with lending his expertise and giving advice on stylistic and interpretive points to professional orchestras and chamber groups, arranging and orchestrating a number of Elgar’s works, and now completing a book on the ‘Enigma Variations’, a subject he has been researching for over eighteen years, Simon is clearly one of the best people to talk about and play the music written by The Great Man.

Most of us are familiar with Land of Hope and Glory and images of flag-waving at the Last Night of the Proms.  We may be familiar with photographs of Elgar in his old age, a stout, tweed-clad, moustachioed Knight of the Realm, looking every inch a member of the establishment. Indeed his style is best known for its English patriotic fervour, but underneath the surface lies a sadness which is deeply personal, we were to learn much about this side of Elgar…

Elgar was deeply affected by the horrors of the First World War, during this period, he composed several patriotic works; music for the children’s play The Starlight Express, settings of Laurence Binyon’s poems The Spirit of England, and the ballet The Sanguine Fan. After the war, a new introspective Elgar turned to chamber music, writing his last four masterpieces – the Violin Sonata, the String Quartet, the Piano Quintet, and the great Cello Concerto. These works show a turnaround in his style – they are much more introverted and melancholy than the grandiose symphonies or marches. The Cello Concerto in particular expresses Elgar’s despair over the tragedy of the war.

When the armistice was signed in November 1918, Laurence Binyon approached Elgar again and invited him to set to music words he had written for peace. Elgar replied “I do not feel drawn to write peace music somehow…the whole atmosphere is too full of complexities for me to feel music to it; not the atmosphere of the poem…the individual sorrow and sacrifice – a cruelty I resent bitterly & disappointedly.” For Elgar such pomp and circumstance was totally inappropriate given what had been lost.

With a brilliant performance of part of the violin sonata, Simon’s fascinating insight into the great composer’s life and works drew to a close, leaving us all pondering on the real character of Sir Edward Elgar, this most English of composers.


Fascinating insight from a top specialist, perfect event for Westminster Music Library


Innovative and informative, thank you, as a musician it is good to see the music being made accessible this way


For the uninitiated, an excellent introduction to Elgar, and the way the First World War influenced his life and music.

Still basking in the glow from the success of our first Behind the Lines workshop for adults two weeks ago, last Saturday Westminster Music Library held the next workshops in the series, this time for our younger musicians and their families. With expert guidance from the musicians of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the two workshops; one for 2-5 year olds (Early Years) and one for 6-11 year olds (Primary Years) ran very smoothly, with over 35 excited, well-behaved children and their parents. The musical focus featured English composer Edward Elgar.

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After an introduction to the bassoon, cello, violin, and some fun, energetic, musical games, the Early Years group picked out some instruments to play and chose an animal to be represented by their instrument. We had a whole zoo in the library; from bats to hamsters, mice to lions. Everyone then split into groups and told a musical story about the animals in the English countryside, with each group given the chance to perform to one another.

In the Primary Years workshop, many of our talented young musicians had already started learning to play an instrument, so naturally they brought them along to add to our “orchestra”. But for those without, there was no shortage of fun and interesting instruments to play, from cuckoo whistles to African “djembe” drums. After a lively warm up and a discussion about some other composers, the RPO introduced the “marching” bass line from Elgar’s ‘Carillon’. Written in the year The Great War ended, ‘Carillon’ was composed by Elgar as an orchestral accompaniment to Belgian poet Émile Cammaerts’ words. Very powerful, his poem tells us that despite their wounds and defeats from the War, the Belgians should hold their heads high and sing of the bravery of their men and country.

Primary Years Workshop

It was around this bass line that today’s workshop was based; there was a rhythm-clapping game, a song to sing about ‘EE’, and the chance to create music to play over the bass line. Everyone played together as one group in the final performance, a brilliant end to a fun packed morning.

It was very encouraging to see how many children got involved in the music, showed their interest with questions and knowledge with answers, and most importantly thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The great thing about workshops in the Music Library is being able to pull real scores off the shelf –Simon Baggs (our Elgar expert) talked about Elgar’s opinion of and influences from Wagner, one of our young participants noticed they were sitting right next to some Wagner scores and asked “is this his work?” The score was taken from the shelf so we could look at and hear the extract Simon was talking about. We also had the “Challenge Simon” game – participants had to think of the hardest questions they could about Elgar’s life and challenge Simon to answer them… “Was Elgar ever burgled?” Yes he had been, and even worse by police officers!