Vaughan Williams - Valse Lente
Vaughan Williams wrote comparatively little piano music, although he did write a piano concerto, which premiered in 1933. This Valse lente contains many compositional traits of Vaughan-Williams – simple, undulating melodies and bass movement in parallel fifths (bars 9-12, bars 30-32, bar 33 onwards).
The French title of this piece (slow waltz) shows the influence of Vaughan Williams’ studies with Ravel in Paris but there is an English pastoral feel to it, reflected in the widely spaced chords and the contrast of G minor and G major.
Pupil Match & Suitability
This delightful piece should have a broad range of suitability, although pupils with smaller hands may find the stretches at bars 40-44 difficult. The chord in the L.H. of b. 40 may, however, be spread.
The piece would suit a pupil with good keyboard confidence as the LH especially covers a wide range - nearly 3 octaves.
The lyricism of the melody and the pleasant modal harmony should appeal to everyone with a taste for the romantic style. It requires or is a good opportunity to develop a more mature sensitive pianistic style.
Style & Tempo
This lovely piece combines the style of a French waltz with the English pastoral sound found in composers of the first half of the 20th century.
Feel a definite 3 in a bar and don’t attempt a more Viennese 1 in a bar- it just won’t work with the mood of this piece.
Although suppleness of phrasing is needed, it may be advisable to avoid too much rubato in this piece, as it might compromise the elegantly simple style.
The style is highly melodic and cantabile so make sure that the tune is recognised, chased and brought out wherever it occurs; first in the LH and then at bar 8 in the RH before returning briefly to the LH at bar 21, back into the RH at bar 25 and then, somewhat trickily, into the lower RH from bars 33-39. The other parts provide harmonic support and accompaniment and need to be subdued.
Phrasing & Articulation
Valse lente is written in a beautiful cantabile style and as such has slur and tenuto markings. Make sure that these are recognised and understood.
There are also many pairs of slurred notes, which need a “drop and lift” touch, i.e. a little more weight on the first and floating off the second. These are worth practising via exercises up and down the piano. These short phrases grow and expand in length and dynamic at bars 17-32.
Always listen out for and encourage your pupils to listen out for the legato cantabile, sing and play the phrases and observe the crescendo marks.
Make a difference between the minor A sections and the sunnier sounding B section in G major; there is a change of character.
Tone & Texture
Valse lente is melody and accompaniment so make sure that melodies are clearly seen, heard, sung and defined, wherever they occur, whether in the RH or the LH.
Lots of RH/LH duetting will help secure and define these.
Encourage listening out for melody and accompaniment as the piece is played.
Bringing out the melody wherever it occurs, in the LH and the RH, is tricky so encourage identification, recognition, listening and knowing each part independently.
Students will need to be taught in a very deliberate way how to transfer the weight from one finger to the next, slurring where indicated, in the inner parts of the final section.
Use words such as “heavier fingers” to give hand weight to the melody. Singing the melody lines is an excellent idea too.
There shouldn’t be any great difficulty in this area, as all fingering should be geared towards providing legato at all times.
Connections with the thumb should be smooth and unaccented, and passage of the thumb underneath the hand can be aided by outward movement of the elbows and flexible wrists.
Given Vaughan Williams’ impressionist influence, one might be tempted to apply a blanket of pedal to the piece with scant regard for the rests – however, this is unlikely to produce a convincing performance!
The left hand rests are obviously very deliberate and appear throughout the piece, so it’s important to pedal clearly, and release the pedal at the end of the bar, but without hindering the legato of the melody.
It may be best to start by asking the pupil to practise the left hand alone first, without the pedal, observing the fingering carefully and making every effort to create as much legato as possible.
Pedal should be added later, once the basics are covered, and finger legato is in place. During Bars 33-39 it may be necessary to practise the left hand with the lower part of the right first, adding the top voice later on with a much quieter dynamic.
Pupils who read music well will probably take to this piece very easily. Practice should, as in the vast majority of cases, be limited to sections dictated by phrase lengths, e.g. bars 1-8, bars 9-16 and so on.
Once the notes and rhythm are mastered, pupils should move on to pedalling, then dynamics and any original touches.
Thoughtful performances which show some creativity in interpretation will be appreciated by the listener.
If pupils are having problems projecting the melody (at bar 33 for example), it may be worthwhile practising in different combinations – right hand parts on their own, or top part of the right hand with the left in a quiet dynamic, for example.
Use of the wrist, arm and elbow should be encouraged to produce a pleasing tone without too much harshness.
An excellent performance will be characterised by confident movement up and down the piano, the melody and accompaniment will defined and there will be comfortable and appropriate use of the pedals. In addition there will be the full range of dynamics from pp, p, and f and a well-controlled diminuendo in the last 4 bars.
A good performance will have secure notes, a change of character between the A B A sections and some attempt at defining melody and accompaniment.
A sound performance will have fairly secure notes but there might not be a good balance of hands in all sections.
A performance for discussion
You could discuss this performance with your student: