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O Thou Transcendent: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams (2007)

Thomas Allen , Jill Balcon , Tony Palmer  |  NR |  DVD
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

Price: $22.99 & FREE Shipping on orders over $35. Details
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O Thou Transcendent: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams + Tony Palmers Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter + Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was / Tony Palmer
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Product Details

  • Actors: Thomas Allen, Jill Balcon, Barbara Dickson, English Chamber Orchestra, Brian Kay
  • Directors: Tony Palmer
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Alliance
  • DVD Release Date: February 26, 2008
  • Run Time: 148 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00118DQX8
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #71,987 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Special Features

None.

Editorial Reviews

Review

"His latest effort is a superb, stirring biography of the towering English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Piecing together a chronological timeline of Vaughan Williams' life and art, Palmer adroitly uses vintage interviews with the composer and his widow Ursula plus new interviews with other composers, colleagues, and friends to paint a complicated portrait of an agnostic who wrote some of the most emotional and spiritual music of the 20th century..." -- Timesquare.com

"Tony Palmer's film is now complete. Undoubtedly controversial it will also be very important in raising awareness of RVW. Two and a half hours long, it looks at Vaughan Williams' life as a disturbed and frustrated one. Powerful with some harrowing imagery, the film firmly dispels the myth that VW was a cuddly folk song collector and recycler who was affectionately known as "Uncle Ralph". As well as exploring his musical legacy, Palmer also focuses on the human side of VW. His frustration at living in a cosy market town, looking after an invalid wife (which he did devotedly) and the fury as well as the kindness and humanity which were all features of his remarkable character and which in their turn affected his music. The music passages are superbly played and filmed. The film is available on DVD. An absolute must see." -- www.rvwsociety.com

Product Description

Produced by the multi-award winning director Tony Palmer, this is the first ever full-length film biography on Ralph Vaughan Williams. This film features interviews with many of those who knew and worked with him, including the Gloucester Cathedral Choir conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, archive performances by Boult and Barbirolli, newly discovered interviews with Vaughan Williams himself, specially recorded extracts from “The Symphonies,” “Job,” “The Lark Ascending” and “The Tallis Fantasia” as well as contributions from Harrison Birtwistle, John Adams, Richard Thompson, Mark Anthony Turnage, Barbara Dickson, Michael Tippett & Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The British are coming! February 26, 2008
Format:DVD
When a British friend asked what I knew of classic British composer, R. Vaughan Williams, I blinked. That would be ... nothing. Although, as it turned out, when he speedily sent me a two-and-a-half-hour video to educate me, I did know more than nothing. I just didn't know that I knew. But as the documentary unfolded, my ear picked up a string of symphonies and a few sweeter melodies that I had known quite well. Only, shame on me, without giving due credit.

So this is R. Vaughan Williams. With gorgeous scenery that made me want to book a ticket to the United Kingdom, but now, as backdrop, a kind of mix of biography and history and imagined perception (the composer's) unfolded. This is the place and time that formed the musician that created the music. Indeed, to know and see all of this enriches understanding and appreciation of the music. Williams is often called a composer of folk melodies with a classical slant, but the documentary, interspersing soaring orchestras with crashing waves--the Sea Symphonies were easily my favorite--and gruesome war scenes and interview snippets with doddering, elderly British ladies, speaking of the composer's bushy eyebrows and tormented marriage (he loved his wife, but soon after marriage, her failing health became a primary issue), proves the point most eloquently that Williams is far more than folk tune composer. He is a composer on a grand scale. He has written scores for movies in his time, music that climbs mountains and builds suspense and melts into romance. He has composed symphonies that are complex and gorgeous. He can write the sweet melody that resonates in your mind all day long, but he can also write the sweep of crashing symphony that shakes the listener to the core ... as only powerful music can.

The video is long and highly detailed, but a visual treat as well as informative. I now know not only the music, but the man and the history behind it. The British are welcome here.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an engrossing and moving overview February 14, 2008
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
Tony Palmer's film biography of Vaughan Williams presents the composer as a complicated genius and noble spirit who endured much frustration, disappointment, and tragedy in his life and expressed it in his music...a far cry from the popular image of RVW as sentimental folk tune recycler. The narrative is put forward using interviews and file voiceovers (most notably from RVW himself, his widow Ursula, and biographer Michael Kennedy, but including a wide, and sometimes surprising, group of talking heads). Beautifully filmed and leisurely paced, the film helps confirm Vaughan Williams as one of Europe's (not just England's) greatest 20th century composers. Excerpts from musical performances--newly recorded as well as file footage--give strong implicit evidence that Vaughan Williams was also a great symphonist. Palmer makes a mistake with the use of graphic late 20th- and 21st-century war and famine footage in an attempt to reinforce his otherwise well-founded argument that RVW's music is tragically pessimistic and relevant in the modern world; however, these few moments are only a small blemish on a highly successful and personal portrait. Highly recommended.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, if not for graphic Footage August 29, 2008
By S. Kohn
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
This is really a well-made and important piece on one of my favorite composers. I was going to have my eight-year old son watch it with me. I'm glad I didn't. The film maker included very graphic and disturbing film images of dead and dying children to emphasize the horrors of war. I really believe this hurt the film. The horrors of war could have been depicted in a way that did not draw us too far away from the subject matter, which is a great composer and his music. At the end, it was the gruesome images of tragedy and destruction that stayed with me, not the man and his transcendent music. I'm not against powerful images and shaking things up when necessary, but the film maker, for all of his good work, crossed the line to the point where his creation left me angry and disturbed, not enlightened and inspired. A few substituted scenes could have made the point and still kept the focus on the composer and his work. I would have given it 5 stars otherwise.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
By rkint
Format:DVD
There are good things about this documentary. Some of the interviews are great. The music and musicians are well-integrated into the film. The musical selections provide a good balance between the well-known pastoral works and lesser-known pieces. The later symphonies show that Vaughan Williams's creativity never flagged and I'm glad that this documentary featured them.

But the film is marred by a lack of focus and a heavy-handed opinionated approach. A disproportionate amount of screen time goes to a revisionist biographer whose name escapes me. Some of it was interesting but I'd have preferred more meat and less fluff.

The low point, and the reason for the 2-star review, is the montage of horrific scenes illustrating man's inhumanity to man. The idea is relevant: Vaughan Williams was marked by his experiences as an ambulance driver in WWI and by the friends who didn't come back from it, like George Butterworth. The execution of this idea though is brutally and amateurishly clumsy. I get that the 6th Symphony is bleak, I don't need to be hit over the head with it. And I'd like to be able to listen to it without having it tainted by the filmmaker's vision of it.

Unlike other viewers, I don't want the 2+ hours back. I want my joy in Vaughan Williams's music back.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars A documentary about how NOT to use Mickey Mousing
I was looking forward to watching this documentary about one of my favorite composers. However, Tony Palmer has created a documentary that has so many terrible editing choices in... Read more
Published on June 30, 2012 by Michael T. Coolen
4.0 out of 5 stars Too long but elucidates the essential RVW
Tony Palmer's lengthy (148 minutes) documentary on English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) proceeds in a timeline from the composer's birth through his life, music and... Read more
Published on April 19, 2012 by Larry VanDeSande
5.0 out of 5 stars A Small Quibble and Footnote
Not to take anything away from Tony Palmer and his achievement, but there was another documentary/bio of Vaughan Williams. Read more
Published on September 6, 2011 by Burch
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant film of the life of major English composer, Ralph Vaughan...
This is a brilliant account of the life and the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, made by Tony Palmer. Read more
Published on January 5, 2011 by Jacko
2.0 out of 5 stars 'O Thou Transcendent': A+ for subject matter, C- for execution.
If you're any kind of fan of RVW or British music in general then this documentary is a must. But it pains be to say it. Read more
Published on April 22, 2010 by Matthew J. Waterman
5.0 out of 5 stars An insightful portrait of a great composer
OK, I'll admit it. Call me shallow and sentimental, call me a lover of pastoral fluff. But Ralph Vaughan Williams is my favorite composer. There you have it. Read more
Published on March 3, 2010 by T. Fisher
5.0 out of 5 stars A transcendent film
This is not so much a review as an opportunity to add five stars to this outstanding production. It deserves even more stars, were that possible. Read more
Published on January 9, 2010 by John E. Martell Jr.
5.0 out of 5 stars beautiful music, beautiful shots of England
I knew nothing about Ralph Vaughan Williams. I have heard very little of his music. Tony Palmer's film left me wanting more -- to know more about his music and to listen to it. Read more
Published on November 8, 2009 by David Smith
1.0 out of 5 stars A Promising Documentary Ruined By Incompetence And Lack Of Direction
"O Thou Transcendent: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams" has to be one of the worst documentaries I've seen in a long time. Read more
Published on September 5, 2009 by Transfigured Knight
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than his biography
I read the biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, RVW, written by his widow, Ursula, to present to a book club to which I belong. Read more
Published on April 24, 2009 by gilda bee bee
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