Flos Campi, by Ralph Vaughan Williams
If Towards the Unknown Region followed in a European tradition of choral songs with orchestra, Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi marks a decisive break from it.
Scored for solo viola, chamber orchestra and small wordless chorus, it could be described as a cross between Berlioz’s Harold in Italy and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade. The work combines the former’s concept of the soloist as poet rather than virtuoso protagonist with the latter’s oriental influences and sense of colour. Whereas Sheherezade is based on The Arabian Nights, Vaughan Williams quotes from the Song of Solomon at the head of each of the six sections of his work.
The principal challenge for the singer in Flos Campi lies in knowing where you in some of the more extended humming choruses. Relative to a Bach motet, say, it isn’t a difficult piece to sing and there are several opportunities simply to enjoy to the interplay between soloist and orchestra.
To me, with a plaintive oboe answered by the viola in a different key, the the very opening seemed slightly reminiscent of that of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Later on, the march recalled the Turkish music of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio.
The penultimate section includes a passage of rapturous, falling ‘Ah’ figures from the choir that could be sung to Alleluias from the hymn Ye watchers and ye holy ones included in the English Hymnal that Vaughan Williams had edited some years previously.
Flos Campi, then, is like no other work that had gone before in English music. Although not as shocking as the Rite or Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, it showed how formal conventions were breaking down.