Sometimes, I remember an England the way it used to be.
England was never just England, of course. It was Britain. A land of nations, some millions strong, some a few thousand souls, lost in tiny pockets of history and tradition. And there was plenty of hustle and bustle, and disputation, and so forth.
But for all that, it was a soft, gentle land, full of people of good cheer, and kindness. It was home to a people who believed in good manners, and civility, and pulling together in times of hardship.
A people with more than united them than divided them.
And when I feel defeated, or overwhelmed, I fall to pondering the example of my mother, who epitomised simple values, held to with guts and determination. Widowed and alone at 40, with a precocious two year old to raise, frequently assailed by migraines so bad she could not raise her head off the pillow, and perpetually very short of money, she was never less than dignified, honourable, ferociously hard working, and compassionate. She was like the best of the country, wrapped up in a smiling bundle of sensible shoes and slightly ill-fitting clothes that smelled faintly of lavendar.
I don’t think my glasses are too rose tinted.
Something has been lost … not just in Britain, but elsewhere. And when I recall those times, I listen to music that recreates the true land of my youth, captured for us by a genius, to re-live as we need to, to recharge us, to re-commit us to an ideal, to lift us back towards the light on the hill.
Ralph Vaughan Williams 12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958 was an English composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores. He was also a collector of English folk music and song: this activity both influenced his editorial approach to the English Hymnal, beginning in 1904, in which he included many folk song arrangements set as hymn tunes, and also influenced several of his own original compositions.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father, the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams (the surname Vaughan Williams is an unhyphenated double-barrelled name of Welsh origin), was vicar.
Following his father’s death in 1875, he was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan née Wedgwood (1843–1937), the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, a Wedgwood family home in the Surrey Hills. (The composer was therefore a great-great grandson of Josiah Wedgwood.) He was also related to the Darwins, Charles Darwin being a great-uncle. Though born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, Vaughan Williams never took it for granted and worked all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals in which he believed.
As a student he had studied piano, “which I never could play, and the violin, which was my musical salvation.” After Charterhouse School he attended the Royal College of Music (RCM) under Charles Villiers Stanford. He read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his friends and contemporaries included the philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. He then returned to the RCM and studied composition with Hubert Parry, who became a friend. One of his fellow pupils at the RCM was Leopold Stokowski and during 1896 they both studied organ under Walter Parratt. Stokowski later went on to perform six of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies for American audiences, making the first recording of the Sixth Symphony in 1949 with the New York Philharmonic, and giving the U.S. premiere of the Ninth Symphony in Carnegie Hall in 1958.
Another friendship made at the RCM, crucial to Vaughan Williams’s development as a composer, was with fellow-student Gustav Holst whom he first met in 1895. From that time onwards they spent several ‘field days’ reading through and offering constructive criticism on each other’s works in progress.
Vaughan Williams’s composition developed slowly and it was not until he was 30 that the song “Linden Lea” became his first publication. He mixed composition with conducting, lecturing and editing other music, notably that of Henry Purcell and the English Hymnal. He had already taken lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897 and in 1907–1908 took a big step forward in his orchestral style when he studied for three months in Paris with Maurice Ravel.
In 1904, Vaughan Williams discovered English folk songs and carols, which were fast becoming extinct owing to the oral tradition through which they existed being undermined by the increase of literacy and printed music in rural areas. He travelled the countryside, transcribing and preserving many himself. Later he incorporated some songs and melodies into his own music, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working lives of ordinary people. His efforts did much to raise appreciation of traditional English folk song and melody. Later in his life he served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which, in recognition of his early and important work in this field, named its Vaughan Williams Memorial Library after him. During this time he strengthened his links to prominent writers on folk music, including the Reverend George B. Chambers.
In 1905, Vaughan Williams conducted the first concert of the newly founded Leith Hill Music Festival at Dorking which he was to conduct until 1953, when he passed the baton to his successor, William Cole.
| Ralph Vaughan Williams
painting by Gerald Kelly
In 1909, he composed incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play, a stage production at Cambridge University of Aristophanes’ The Wasps. The next year, he had his first big public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral) and his choral symphony A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1). He enjoyed a still greater success with A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) in 1914, conducted by Geoffrey Toye.
Two World Wars
Vaughan Williams was 41 when World War I began. Though he could have avoided war service entirely, or tried for a commission, he chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer in France and Salonika, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery on 24 December 1917. On one occasion, though too ill to stand, he continued to direct his battery while lying on the ground.Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of hearing loss which eventually caused severe deafness in old age. In 1918, he was appointed Director of Music, First Army, and this helped him adjust back into musical life.
After the war, he adopted for a while a somewhat mystical style in Flos Campi, a work for solo viola, small orchestra and wordless chorus, and in A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3), which draws on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer in that war, including a cadenza for trumpet in the second movement based on a bugler practicing and repeatedly hitting a wrong note, a flattened seventh, which Vaughan Williams alludes to in the symphony. The work was premiered on 26 January, 1922, in London, with Adrian Boult conducting. From 1924 a new phase in his music began, characterised by lively cross-rhythms and clashing harmonies. Key works from this period are Toccata marziale, the ballet Old King Cole, the Piano Concerto, the oratorio Sancta Civitas (his favourite of his choral works) and the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing, which is drawn not from the Bible but from William Blake‘s Illustrations of the Book of Job. He also composed a Te Deum in G for the enthronement of Cosmo Gordon Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury. This period in his music culminated in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, first played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935. This symphony contrasts dramatically with the “pastoral” orchestral works with which he is associated; indeed, its almost unrelieved tension, drama, and dissonance have startled listeners since it was premiered. Acknowledging that the Fourth Symphony was different, the composer said, “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant.” Two years later, Vaughan Williams made a historic recording of the work with the same orchestra for HMV (His Master’s Voice), his only commercial recording. During this period, he lectured in America and England, and conducted The Bach Choir. He was President of the City of Bath Bach Choir between 1946 and 1959. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in the King’s Birthday Honours of 1935, having previously declined a knighthood. He also gave private lessons in London to students including Irish composer Ina Boyle.
Vaughan Williams was an intimate lifelong friend of the famous British pianist Harriet Cohen. His letters to her reveal a flirtatious relationship, regularly reminding her of the thousands of kisses that she owed him. Before Cohen’s first American tour in 1931 he wrote “I fear the Americans will love you so much that they won’t let you come back.” He was a regular visitor to her home and often attended parties there. Cohen premiered Vaughan Williams’s “Hymn Tune Prelude” in 1930, which he dedicated to her. She later introduced the piece throughout Europe during her concert tours. In 1933 she premiered his Piano Concerto in C major, a work which was once again dedicated to her. Cohen was given the exclusive right to play the piece for a period of time. Cohen played and promoted Vaughan Williams’s work throughout Europe, the USSR, and the United States.
His music now entered a mature lyrical phase, as in the Five Tudor Portraits; the Serenade to Music (a setting of a scene from act five of The Merchant of Venice, for orchestra and sixteen vocal soloists and composed as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood); and the Symphony No. 5 in D, which he conducted at the Proms in 1943. As he was now 70, many people considered it a swan song, but he renewed himself again and entered yet another period of exploratory harmony and instrumentation. His very successful Symphony No. 6 of 1946 received a hundred performances in the first year. It surprised both admirers and critics, many of whom suggested that this symphony (especially its last movement) was a grim vision of the aftermath of an atomic war: typically, Vaughan Williams himself refused to recognise any programme behind this work.
Before his death in 1958, he completed three more symphonies. His Seventh, Sinfonia Antartica, which was based on his 1948 film score for Scott of the Antarctic, exhibits his renewed interest in instrumentation and sonority. The Eighth Symphony, first performed in 1956, was followed by the much weightier Symphony No. 9 in E minor of 1956–57. This last symphony was initially given a lukewarm reception after its first performance in May 1958, just three months before his death. But this dark and enigmatic work is now considered by many to be a fitting conclusion to his sequence of symphonic works.
He also completed a range of instrumental and choral works, including a Tuba Concerto, An Oxford Elegy on texts of Matthew Arnold, and the Christmas cantata Hodie. He also wrote an arrangement of The Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune for the Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth II. At his death he left an unfinished Cello Concerto, an opera Thomas the Rhymer and music for a Christmas play, The First Nowell, which was completed by his amanuensis Roy Douglas (b. 1907).
Despite his substantial involvement in church music, and the religious subject-matter of many of his works, he was described by his second wife as “an atheist … [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.” It is noteworthy that in his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress he changed the name of the hero from John Bunyan‘s Christian to Pilgrim. He also set Bunyan’s hymn Who would true valour see to music using the traditional Sussex melody “Monk’s Gate“. For many church-goers, his most familiar composition may be the hymn tune Sine nomine written for the hymn “For All the Saints” by William Walsham How. The tune he composed for the mediaeval hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine” (Discendi, Amor santo by Bianco of Siena, ca.1434) is entitled “Down Ampney” in honour of his birthplace.
He also worked as a tutor for Birkbeck College.
In the 1950s, the composer supervised recordings of all but his Ninth Symphony by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Decca.At the end of the sessions for the mysterious Sixth Symphony, Vaughan Williams gave a short speech, thanking Boult and the orchestra for their performance, “most heartily,” and Decca later included this on the LP.
He was to supervise the first recording of the Ninth Symphony (for Everest Records) with Boult; his death on 26 August 1958 the night before the recording sessions were to begin provoked Boult to announce to the musicians that their performance would be a memorial to the composer. These recordings, including the speeches by the composer and Boult, have all been reissued by Decca on CD.
Vaughan Williams is a central figure in British music because of his long career as teacher, lecturer and friend to so many younger composers and conductors. His writings on music remain thought-provoking, particularly his oft-repeated call for all persons to make their own music, however simple, as long as it is truly their own. Vaughan Williams was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
He was married twice. His first marriage was to Adeline Fisher (daughter of the historian Herbert William Fisher) in 1896. Adeline was cousin of Ruth Fisher de Ropp, who was the mother of Robert S de Ropp. Robert’s father, a semi-destitute European nobleman, was unable to pay for his son’s post-secondary education. Consequently, Ralph and Adeline Vaughan Williams paid for Robert’s education at the Royal College of Science, in South Kensington, where he eventually specialised in biology and earned a PhD. De Ropp went on to be a successful research scientist and well-known author of books on human potentials. Adeline Fisher Vaughan Williams died in 1951 after many years of suffering from crippling arthritis.
Vaughan Williams had an affair with the married poet Ursula Wood beginning in 1938. After Wood’s husband died in 1942, Wood became Ralph’s literary advisor and personal assistant and moved into his Surrey home, apparently with the tacit approval of Adeline, for whom Wood served as a care giver until Adeline’s death in 1951.
Wood wrote the libretto to his choral work The Sons of Light, and contributed to that of The Pilgrim’s Progress and Hodie. Wood and Vaughan Williams married in 1953 and moved to London and lived at 10 Hanover Terrace, Regents Park, until the composer’s death five years later.
In 1964 Wood published RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams. She served as honorary president of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society until her death in 2007.
His earlier works sometimes show the influence of Maurice Ravel, his teacher for three months in Paris in 1908. Ravel described Vaughan Williams as the only one of his pupils who did not write music like Ravel.
In Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd wrote, “If that Englishness in music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be: ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.” Ackroyd quotes music critic John Alexander Fuller Maitland, whose distinctions included editing the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in the years just before 1911, as having observed with great perspicacity that in Vaughan Williams’s style “one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new.”
This undoubtedly reflects the fact that his style expresses a deep regard for and fascination with folk tunes, the variations upon which can convey the listener from the down-to-earth (which he always tried to remain in his daily life) to the ethereal.
Simultaneously the music shows patriotism toward England in the subtlest form, engendered by a feeling for ancient landscapes and a person’s small yet not entirely insignificant place within them. This is surely why his work is played with such regularity – and such affection – more than 50 years after his death.
- Reactionary Composer of the Week: Ralph Vaughan Williams (orthosphere.org)
- Proms 2012: Vaughan Williams symphonies, Royal Albert Hall, review (telegraph.co.uk)