Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Flos Campi

The impulse to transcend, to rise to a higher plane, was deeply engraved upon Western spirituality by Plato and later Neo-Platonic Christians such as Saint Augustine. Yet Humanity’s primordial mystical desire, artistically rendered in the art of the Paleolithic caves, has never been entirely lost: to touch the mind of the jaguar, to sip of the Earth’s sweet nectar, to take wing with the eagle, to commune in deep time with the ancestors.

This is why I treasure the compositions of the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It may sound like a stretch to associate a 20th century composer with indigenous consciousness, yet Vaughan Williams, inspired by a poem of Meredith, could capture in a violin melody the rising of a jubilant lark and in his orchestration our experience of symbiosis with all of Nature:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Like the voice of nature, in Vaughan-Williams’ work, as one critic observed, “One is never sure if one is listening to something very old or very new.”

Yet Vaughan-Williams did not write airy New Age music. It is a brooding prayer, full of ecstasy and grief, very in keeping with the tenor of the English imagination: “Ostensibly familiar and common place, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.”

Of all his pieces, I’ve most hearkened to his eccentric composition Flos Campi, Latin for “flower of the field,” based in the Biblical Song of Solomon. Opening with a weaving bitonal duet between a viola and oboe, the suite unfolds into an interplay between a wordless chorus and an orchestra of flute (doubling on piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, percussion, and a modest body of strings. The voices, rising and falling in mystical/erotic ecstasy to rest in satiated tranquility, are seduced, spurred on to higher planes of exaltation, titillated, and led through intricate, whirling dance steps by their ardent lover, the orchestra. At the piece’s conclusion, all join in a single statement of soaring, subtle ecstasy and affirmation.

To listen to this piece is to be taken through a landscape, one whose contents are unique for each listener, yet which speaks universally to our deepest desire for communion with the transcendent through this created/evolved world. The listener never soars beyond into the empyrean, but is continually brought back to the dank, sublime mystery of our biological home – before being set to flight in spirit once again. It is the breadth and depth of the visionary journey which makes Flos Campi unique.

Like many of his works, Flos Campi is a song of the Earth and our symbiosis with it. Vaughan-Williams called himself an agnostic, but his spiritual roots ran deep.