The Kennedy Center

Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus"

About the Work

Ralph Williams Composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams
© Richard Freed

English folk music was a lifelong stimulus for Vaughan Williams. Early on, he and his friend Gustav Holst collected British folk tunes with a driven enthusiasm similar to that of their Hungarian contemporaries Bart&oacute;k and Kod&aacute;ly in their own country. It was in 1893, when Vaughan Williams was 21 years old and had yet to begin his creative work, that he first came across the song “Dives and Lazarus,” which he subsequently cited in several of his compositions before creating the <i>Five Variants. </i> Hubert Foss, one of the most reliable and insightful writers on this composer's music, described the piece for New York as “a musing work, music that contains the dreams and memories of a folk-song collector.”
<br><br>The old tune, in variously altered forms, has been associated with several different texts, but most commonly with one drawn from Chapter 16 of the New Testament Book of Luke, which tells of the punishment suffered by the rich man who drove the starving beggar Lazarus from his door. After their deaths, their roles are reversed: the rich man, burning in Hell, has turned beggar, pleading for a drop of water from Lazarus, while the latter is serene and secure “in Abraham's bosom.”
<br><br>Both the tune itself and Vaughan Williams's treatment of it here may recall his earlier and more widely known <i>Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis </i>and <i>Fantasia on “Greensleeves,” </i>both also scored for strings (with two flutes and harp in the latter piece). It is pertinent that the composer did not use the term “variations” in the titles of these works. “Variants” was especially well chosen for labeling the present one, since the song itself, over the centuries, has been known in several slightly different forms which may be regarded as variants of one another. Vaughan Williams noted in the score, “These variants are not exactly replicas of traditional tunes, but rather reminiscences of various versiosn in my own collection and those of others.”