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Many of Vaughan Williams’s most famous compositions were direct settings of famous or newly discovered folk melodies. In the case of his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, the inspiration was less literal.
As the composer himself explained, "These variants are not exact replicas of traditional tunes but rather reminiscences of various versions in my own collection and those of others." The original tune in question, called ‘Dives and Lazarus’, is referenced in sixteenth-century writings but could well have been written earlier than that, and is a musical depiction of the new Testament story of the rich man and the beggar. You may know many other names, perhaps ‘The Star of the County Down’.
Much like The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus contains superbly sumptuous string writing, with sweeping melodies stretching across the orchestra, underpinned by deep and resonant harmonies. It was first performed by the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in June 1939 under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. Later that year, Boult conducted the British premiere at Bristol’s Colston Hall.
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones (conductor). Naxos: 8557798.
Illustration: Mark Millington