Among Vaughan Williams’s earliest settings of poetry by Walt Whitman, and his only one for a cappella chorus, By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame is a rare find from the composer’s manuscripts preserved at the British Library, and a conspicuous addition to the list of key works written during the lengthy gestation of A Sea Symphony. With the Two Vocal Duets of 1904, also published by Stainer & Bell, this six-minute Nocturne for SSAATTBB initiated his lifelong dedication to Whitman’s verse, and embraced the prophetic themes of the Symphony and Toward the Unknown Region.
In an army encampment, the poet reflects by night on ‘life and death, of home and the past and loved, and those that are far away.’ Foreshadowing the slow movement of A London Symphony, rich chromatic harmonies drive aspiring melodic lines to urgent climaxes. But there are also moods of exquisite tenderness and transparency, and the ending ‘al niente’ is among the first of Vaughan Williams’s visionary dissolutions of sound into silence. The work is prescient in other ways. The text is from the same collection, Drum-Taps, that in 1936 was the source for two movements of that great cry for peace, Dona Nobis Pacem. One of these, Dirge for Two Veterans, was also originally composed before the 1914–18 War, in which Vaughan Williams, like Whitman in the American Civil War, observed suffering at close hand. Clearly, he valued the music highly, for it also exists in extended instrumental form in the Two Pieces for String Quintet of 1906, with an earlier arrangement still from 1904. Nonetheless, the choral version was unperformed during his lifetime. Thereafter, the parts (no score survives) lay undisturbed until William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea recorded the work for release on Albion Records ALBCD051 in 2022, with its publication now to mark the 150th anniversary celebrations of the composer’s birth.
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