Cambridge University Library

Early Vaughan Williams work to be performed for first time

12 October, 2010

The score of what is now being called A Cambridge Mass was written by Vaughan Williams for his doctoral examination and has never been heard. It had been in the safe-keeping of Cambridge University Library for more than 100 years, but was only identified as an unperformed example of the famous composer's early work when it was put on display to the public as part of a wider exhibition.

A Cambridge Mass - written for soloists, double chorus and orchestra - will be performed in full for the first time at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, on 3 March 2011. The concert will be conducted by Alan Tongue, who has been responsible for bringing the early Vaughan Williams work into the limelight.

The original score for the work, which Vaughan Williams wrote when he was 26, was deposited in the Library's Manuscripts Room. It was written by the composer in 1899 for his Doctor of Music examination at Cambridge University and has pencil markings made by the examiners. The work lasts about 45 minutes, and is for concert hall performance rather than liturgical use.

Tongue, who studied music at Jesus College, Cambridge, and lives in the city, has spent much of his career taking English music around the world. He spotted the Vaughan Williams score in an exhibition of music manuscripts.

"Gazing at a page of the score displayed in a glass case, I knew immediately that here was a significant work. I thought to myself: I want to hear this played and I want to be the one to conduct it. It was a moment of revelation," said Tongue.

"After the exhibition closed, I visited the Manuscripts Room and asked to see the mass. I sat enthralled turning over the pages in the hushed atmosphere and trying to imagine the sounds. Here was clearly a work from a great composer."

With permission from the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust, Tongue obtained a facsimile of the original score and spent last winter working intensively to transcribe it onto his computer to make a modern performing edition.

Tongue described the process of transcribing the work, sitting in his study often until late at night, as extraordinarily exciting. "It soon became clear that no performance had ever taken place as there were too many uncorrected mistakes," he said. "As my computer played the synthesised sounds, just imagine, I was privileged to be the first person to hear the work."

The score was written to quite a strict brief which required students to write partly in fugue and canon, but plenty of the composer's own personality comes through.

Preserved along with the original score at Cambridge University library is a letter from Vaughan Williams verifying that the score was entirely his own unaided work.