Tony Palmer Films: “O Thou Transcendent” The Life Of Ralph Vaughan Williams

“I don’t think a composer can really be great without a unique sense of harmony. Maybe it is the presence of Tallis in that piece that drives the harmonic movement—it’s that, it’s the very wide-spread tessitura (very high with the very low) so you get the feeling you are in a cathedral, which is a magical quality if it’s well-played … Imagine, I’d never heard an orchestra before and this incredible and wide-spread resonant chord filled the hall …”
—John Adams on Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. In Tony Palmer’s new film, “O THOU TRANSCENDENT”: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams (TPDVD106), he pays tribute to this remarkable composer and
humanitarian whose music has become an indelible part of our culture. O Thou Transcendent features rare footage of Vaughn Williams, as well as interviews with important musical figures like composers John Adams, Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Sir Michael Tippett, and André Previn, conductor David Willcocks, and many others. The film also features commentary from the composer’s second wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams, who died in 2007.

In the film, Sir Michael Tippett admits that he “hated everything Vaughan Williams stood for with ‘all that folk waffle.'” However, after Vaughan Williams died, Tippett realized that he had made “[an] appalling misjudgment because it was Vaughan Williams, ‘rather than any of his contemporaries,’ who had ‘made us free.'” Composer John Adams recalls the first orchestral concert he attended as a child and hearing the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which made such an impression on him he decided to become a composer. British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage explains how he was deeply affected by his “encounter with the darkness, even hopelessness” of Vaughan Williams’ vision of mankind.

Superb musical excerpts from almost every important period in Vaughan Williams’ work are featured and contextualized in the time period in which they were composed. Excerpts consist of both historic and modern performances and include such musical luminaries as Sir Adrian Boult (shown leading the “Romanza” from Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5), Simon Keenlyside, Thomas Allen, Sarah Walker, Nicola Benedetti, Jordi Savall, The National Youth Orchestra, the BBC Chorus, The English Chamber Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, and many others.

Palmer has said: “My intention is not hagiography. It is simply this: to explode for ever the image of a cuddly old Uncle, endlessly recycling English folk songs and to awaken the audience to a central figure in our musical heritage who did more for us all than Greensleeves and The Lark Ascending …”