Analysis: Vaughan Williams’ “Silent Noon”

Composed a year prior to the rest of the cycle of which it is now a part, 1903’s Silent Noon by Ralph Vaughan Williams sets the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Also entitled “Silent Noon,” the sonnet appeared Rossetti’s 1881 “Ballads and Sonnets.” It was later added to the collection “House of Life: A Sonnet Sequence.” Written in iambic pentameter, its two stanzas tell of the time after love. The speaker is ambiguous, and though he seems to be speaking to his former love (the second person is used), it seems more to be a musing to himself than a direct dialogue. The rhyme scheme is as follows: ABBAACCA DDEFFE. Imagery is key in this poem: “long, fresh grass” and “rosy blooms” paint a clear picture of the softness of the scene, “golden kingcup-fields” and “silver edge” imply dignity and high living (as perceived by the speaker), while the “blue thread loosened from the sky” evokes a more startling response, parallel with the helplessness of the lost love. The imagery is the focus until the last few lines, at which point the importance is on the word “was,” the moment at which the tense shifts and indicates the now-lovelorn theme of the sonnet.

In Vaughan Williams’ setting, later added to the cycle “House of Life,” the structure of Rossetti’s poem is not retained fully; the stanzas aren’t separated distinctly, though they are distinguished from one another stylistically. The second begins with a brief a capella passage which it repeats soon after, along with a similar minimally-accompanied passage; this section is also marked “quasi recitative.” These qualities help mark a departure from poem’s first stanza, a lyrical line with steady accompaniment figures. The integrity of the text is also slightly deviated from, in that the last line of the song repeats the words “the song” for a second time before finishing the poem. Nothing has been omitted from the poem, though. Declamation is quite good in Vaughan Williams’ setting, as is typical for Vaughan Williams’ vocal music. Generally, the poetic meter is brought out by the positioning of stressed syllables on accented beats. The clarity of text is also rather remarkable, as the range, accompaniment, dynamics, etc., all contribute to making text easily understood. The piece is homophonic.

“Silent Noon” follows the form ABCA. The piece begins with a two-measure prelude which introduces the material soon to be used in the vocal line. The accompaniment of the A section, in E flat major, contains the vocal line as well as a repeating rhythmic figure in generally every measure: one eight, one quarter, three eights. This section concludes with a modulation to the dominant. The B section varies substantially, abandoning its pulsing accompaniment in favor of a new a rhythmic figure: three quarter notes in the right hand with an upward arpeggiating eighth note string (ending in an eighth rest) in the left hand. It also shifts, unexpectedly at this point (measure 20) to G major and later modulates (at measure 34) to C major. However, it doesn’t remain in this key, as Vaughan Williams quickly tonicizes the parallel minor (measures 38-39) and then its relative major. The C section, beginning in F major at measure 45, also has an accompaniment change; previously described, this section makes use of a capella and minimal accompaniment dispersed between returns to the B-section accompaniment figure, all beneath a “quasi recitative” vocal line of new melodic material. At measure 56, the accompaniment figure of section A returns-as does the key of Eb major-easing us back into the return of the A section and the familiar vocal material at measure 62. The piece concludes with a four-measure postlude. The accompaniment plays the role of harmonic support for the beautiful vocal line of this piece. Accompaniment phrases seem to begin and end along with the vocal phrases rather than overlapping them.

As stated, the syllabic vocal line is lyrical for the majority of the song. Its long phrases tend to be melodic, sweeping and passionate in mostly the middle voice (ranging from C4 to Eb5 with leaps of generally a fifth or so, excepting two octave leaps). It is also diatonic, with accidentals only appearing as tonicizations occur in the accompaniment as well. Though it would be beautiful and even somewhat meaningful in its message without the music (as Vaughan Williams evoked the imagery and themes brilliantly), the song truly works as a fusion of both to create the romantic and soothing atmosphere. Other notes for the performer in this song include a plethora of dynamic markings, generally on the softer side but ranging from pp to f with many direct markings as well as both crescendos and decrescendos in between. Furthermore, the piece is filled with extensive, long phrase markings; it is clear that Vaughan Williams sought to stress the extended lyricism of the vocal line.

As in Rossetti’s poem, the imagery is prioritized in Vaughan William’s setting. For example, the “visible silence” commented upon (mm. 36-37) is alluded to in the C section, with its sparseness and sense of freedom in the vocal line. The description of the “wing’d hour… dropt to us from above” uses direct text painting several times, with a large drop on the word “dropt” as well as an upward leap of a fifth on the second syllable of “above.” However, most remarkably in this song is the evocation of emotions through musical choices. The pulsating accompaniment of the first section is soothing, reminiscent of lullabies and correlating with the comfort of the man’s memories of his love. The C section’s silence alludes to his attempt to freeze the memory in time, safe from changing as he know it will. Following this, the rocking of the repeated A section seems a reminder of ticking time. The poignant line with the shifting of tenses contains an upward leap of an octave, displaying the yearning felt by the poem’s speaker, followed by the sustainment of the highest note of the piece, perhaps to show reality slowly becoming realized and a final attempt at holding on to the memory of the past. Clearly the music was shaped by the poetry to a high degree. Vaughan Williams’ specific musical choices immensely enhance the poem’s vivid imagery and calm but passionate emotions.

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