Vaughan Williams's celebrated set of Robert Louis Stevenson settings, Songs of Travel, has lately garnered liberal scholarly attention, not least on account of the vicissitudes of its publication history. Following the cycle's premiere in 1904 it was issued in two separate books, each gathering stylistically different songs. Though a credible case for narrative coherence has been advanced in numerous accounts, the cycle's peculiar amalgamation of materials might rather be read as a signal to its projection of multiple voices, which unsettle the longstanding critical tendency to map a single protagonist through its progress. The division marked by the cycle's publication history may productively be understood to reflect a tension inherent in its aesthetic propositions, one constitutive of much of Vaughan Williams's work, which frequently mediates between the individualistic and the collective, the “artistic” and the “accessible,” and, as I suggest, the subjective voice of the individual artist in its invitation to the participation of a singing and listening community.
I propose that Vaughan Williams's early songs frequently frame the idea or demand the engagement of a listener's contribution, as particular modes of singing and listening—and singing-as-listening—are figured and invited within the music's constitution. Composed as he was searching for an individual creative voice that simultaneously sustained a nascent commitment to the social utility and intelligibility of national art music, these songs explore the possibility of achieving a self-consciously collective authorial subjectivity, often reaching toward a musical intersubjectivity wherein boundaries between self and other—and between composer, performer, and listener—are collapsed. In the recognition of such processes lies a means of examining the tendency of Vaughan Williams's work toward projecting a powerfully subjective voice that simultaneously claims identification with no single agency.
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