Opera blog: ‘Riders to the Sea’

A Brief Analysis of Vaugham Williams Use of Quartal Harmony

Ralph Vaughan Williams composed Riders to the Sea in 1927, although it was not officially premiered until 1st December 1937 at the Royal College of Music in London. The work is a short opera in one act and is widely regarded as the composer’s most successful opera. Furthermore, Vaughan Williams wrote this composition at a time when he was really branching out as a composer and beginning to use less traditional harmony, such as voicing chords in fourths.

In Riders to the Sea, Vaughan Williams uses quartal harmony throughout the music, particularly from 16 to 22. At two measures after 16, the composer voices a chord, which from the bass upwards contains a B-F sharp-C sharp-F sharp and G-sharp. If this is rewritten with G sharp as the root, then this chord can be simply seen as a collection of perfect fourths, with Vaughan Williams using it in a different inversion. This chord is repeated three more times at the beginning of the next three measures. A similar example is on the first and third beats in the fourth measure of 17, where the notes F-C-F-G-C and D can be easily perceived as quartal harmony if D is considered as the root. At 18, a more obvious example can be seen where the composer utilizes a chord containing F sharp-B and E, which is repeated five times leading up to 19, before returning in the few measures leading up to 21.

This work is just one example of Vaughan Williams’s use of less traditional harmony in his music, showing his maturity and development as a composer. It is quite feasible that his lessons with Ravel could have led to his decision to start experimenting with techniques such as quartal harmony, which the French impressionists were using some years earlier, or it could have been simply a personal choice to just try out new ideas in composition. Moreover, it is interesting to see how Vaughan Williams chose to voice some of these chords in Riders to the Sea; a three-note voicing superimposed over a perfect fifth, which could well have been the composer’s attempt to disguise his use of the technique.

Martyn Croston is a music teacher, composer/arranger and a jazz pianist. He has performed throughout the UK, Russia and the USA, both as a soloist and with numerous jazz ensembles.
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