Vaughan Williams’s Romance by Sergein Yap

The Vaughan Williams Romance has been one of my favorite works for the viola for many years. I first heard the piece back in high school during studio class when my teacher decided we would spend the class listening to recordings of various pieces from the viola repertoire. The recording we listened to for the Romance was of my teacher’s longtime friend and colleague, Paul Coletti (professor of viola at The Colburn School in Los Angeles), with pianist Leslie Howard. It wasn’t until my senior year at CIM that I started to work on the piece after graduate school auditions were over. Unfortunately, timing didn’t work out to thoroughly prepare the piece, and I never performed it. I picked it up again this past summer and worked on it with Ivo van der Werff at his summer program in the Catskills; Hartmut Rohde in Baden-Baden, Germany; and Thomas Riebl in Bad Leonfelden, Austria. Though it is a short piece, it is full of heart-tugging melodies, gorgeous colors, and quite a bit of virtuosity. Coming back to the piece now is like visiting with an old friend. I have wonderful memories associated with my performances and study of the piece in Rosendale, NY; Germany; and Austria. Being able to experience the emotions that I associate with the music and remembering what each teacher had to say about the work is one of the greatest joys about being a musician.

The short preface at the top of the piece written by violist and editor Bernard Shore:

There is no information about the approximate date on which this work was written. The manuscript was discovered with others, without any clue, among the composer’s papers after his death. All that can be said is that it was probably intended for the great virtuoso Lionel Tertis, for whom Vaughan Williams had composed his two major works for the viola—Flos Campi in 1925 and the Suite in 1934.

This work was first performed by Bernard Shore and Eric Gritton in a Macnaghten concert on 19 January 1962.

The Romance is composed in arch form, opening with tranquil pentatonic syncopations from the piano, expanding into a rather melancholy and songful aria for the viola. The middle poco animato (appassionato) section presses forward with sweeping and restless waves from both the viola and piano before transitioning to the restrained Largamente section. The Romance proceeds with a return to the opening theme iterated in the piano and eventually closes with the viola muted, playing a withdrawn and placid variance of the poco animato section. The pentatonic modality is used throughout, though there are also stirring false relations featuring mode mixture and chromaticism. 1
1. With reference to Wikipedia

The first question each teacher asked was if I have ever been to Cornwall, England and Prussia Cove. Unfortunately I have not been to Cornwall or Prussia Cove, but having heard each teacher’s description of Cornwall/Prussia Cove and now seeing stunning photographs online, I’d have to agree that the effect and imagery certainly suits the Romance.

S1Morning mist in Prussia Cove

S2Cliffs of Cornwall, England

Thoughts and suggestions from Ivo van der Werff, Hartmut Rohde, and Thomas Riebl. *For ease of understanding, I have written these as bullet points or quotes.

Ivo van der Werff:

  • Opening: Very calm and not too expressive. Imagining the morning mist of Cornwall, England. The syncopation in the piano part gives it swing/flow. Vibrato should be relaxed without any sense of nervous energy.
  • S3 Slower shifts, delaying and elongating the notes prior to peaks/climaxes.

e.g., m. 17: Take plenty of time getting to the minor 6th on beat 2. Make this a big arrival!


e.g., mm. 48–49: The shift from 1st position D to the higher octave doesn’t need to be so fast. (I tend to rush my shifts.)


  • No hard edges throughout the piece. In general, make sure that beginnings and endings of notes are not initiated or released vertically. I had the tendency of clipping ends of notes.
  • Professor van der Werff and pianist Simon Marlow joked about the piece being a part of the “cow pat music” genre. For those of you not familiar with the term, check out this explanation.

Hartmut Rohde:

  • Vibrato on double stops: Professor Rohde used the analogy of ripples in water. When you have different amplitudes (clashing speeds of vibrato for each finger) they disturb each other, ultimately resulting in inconsistent changes in pitch.


  •  Professor Rohde talked a lot about bow speed, contact point, and amount of hair used.

e.g., mm. 40–44: save bow at first, then use generous amounts of bow while making contact point closer to the bridge and on the left side of the C string (inside the C bout).


e.g., mm. 52–56: utilizing flat hair and emphasizing the bottom notes of the chords.



  • Mode mixture creating dissonances: Ex. mm. 16–19

Professor Rohde wanted me to emphasize the tension between the adjacent B-flat and B-natural. S10


  • Opening: not getting too loud or too fast too soon. Save forward motion for the poco animato section. “Sitting near a fireplace, close to the ocean…” (Prussia Cove)
  • “Don’t use your brain too much, but in the opening you have to . . . why are you starting in the lower half of the bow for the first two notes?” Ergo, start in the upper third of the bow.
  • End of m. 17 needs to connect to the downbeat of m. 18—suggested doing the printed slur and not the edited splitting.


  • M. 24: “one slur, three notes, three strings . . . why?” Professor Riebl suggested starting in 3rd position to avoid the color difference between three strings.


  •  One measure before the Largamente: slight ritardando, expanding up to the D.


  • Poco animato: the main indication here is appassionato . . . more important than the poco animato.” Yes, move ahead, but it needs the breathless/restless quality. Very much like waves crashing upon the cliffs. Goes along with Ivo saying no hard edges. Waves envelope and swirl . . . always in motion. “Huge waves coming over the cliffs . . . huge rocks and the waves burst over.”
  •  “Free yourself from the limitations which you have inside your head . . . become part of the wave!”


  • “Rubatos must not be unpredictable for the pianist . . . maintain pulse in an organic way. Pulse is the heartbeat . . .” Essentially he was comparing my pulse to heart arrhythmia.
  •  “Always be true to the score and the composer’s intentions.” Professor Riebl made it a point to say this to every student. He firmly believes in maintaining the integrity of the composer’s writing regarding slurs, dynamics, and tempi. We shouldn’t change these aspects of the music solely out of convenience.

Ironically, none of the teachers mentioned the emotion of love associated with romance. After my first performance of the Romance a fellow student asked me to share what I’m thinking about while I’m playing the piece. My answer was love. Obviously every person will have a different response . . . unrequited love, love of nature, and the ineffable landscape that makes Cornwall, England, unique—family, or friends perhaps? My strongest piece of advice for this work is to wear your heart on your sleeve . . . as cheesy or tawdry as that may sound, it’s truly what I believe will captivate and enrapture your audience.

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