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The first point to make about this book is that, although it is well written, engaging and excellently produced, its subtitle is rather misleading. As the author acknowledges in his introduction, Vaughan Williams himself plays an important role in only four of these eight essays, so the book will be more attractive to those interested in masques, mayings, etc. For instance, the longest essay, ‘The Edens of Reginald Buckley’ (over 70 pages) has almost nothing on Vaughan Williams, though Buckley himself – the visionary Wagnerite who wrote Arthur in Britain – is a compelling character.

Chapter 4 is entitled ‘One of the Greatest Composers the World has ever seen: Vaughan Williams and the Purcell revival’. This actual quote from Vaughan Williams expresses his own admiration for Purcell, a composer whom he consistently championed for another 60 years.

In Chapter 7 – ‘Bringing in the May’ – Savage discusses Vaughan Williams’ involvement in The Pageant of London, seen in 1911 at Crystal Palace, finding tenuous links (springtime games and dances) with some aspects of The Rite of Spring, premiered two years later. Throughout the book Savage often resorts to ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, ‘maybe’, ‘who knows?’ and other conjectures. While the connections and parallels he draws are never less than interesting, they do sometimes feel strained. However, he does present a strong case for Vaughan Williams’ music for the May Day scene pre-dating (and therefore serving as a study for) his opera Hugh the Drover. In passing it is worth remembering that Vaughan Williams loathed the ‘Merrie England’ concept – ‘a sham return to an imaginary (probably quite illusory) arcadia of several centuries ago’.

The final chapter – ‘Romany Ryes and the Cambridge Ritualists’ – includes much discussion of the background to Hugh the Drover, the romantic ballad opera which Vaughan Williams envisaged as ‘a sort of English parallel to Smetana’s Verkaufte Braut’ (Bartered Bride). Savage finds in Drover Hugh ‘a trace at least of George Borrow’s Gypsy character Jasper Petulengro’, Borrow’s Lavengro and The Romany Rye being vastly influential at this time.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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