Wednesday, October 12, 8872

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams's (October 12, 1872, Down Ampney, Goucerstershire, England - August 26, 1958) father, the Rev. Arthur Vaughan Williams, was the town vicar. Following his father's death in 1875 he was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan Wedgwood (1843–1937), the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, the Wedgwood family home in the North Downs. He was also related to the Darwins,

Charles Darwin being a great-uncle. Ralph (pronounced "Rayf") was therefore born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, but never took it for granted and worked tirelessly all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals in which he believed.

[The Darwin-Wedgwood-Galton family tree, showing Vaughan Williams's relationships to Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood]

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 close friend. One of his fellow pupils at the RCM was

Leopold Stokowski and during 1896 they both studied organ under Sir Walter Parratt. Stokowski later went on to perform six of Vaughan Williams's symphonies for American audiences, making the very first recording of the Symphony No. 6 in 1949 with the New York Philharmonic, and giving the US Premiere of the Symphony No. 9 in Carnegie Hall in 1958.

Vaughan Williams's composing 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 further lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897 and later a big step forward in his orchestral style occurred when he studied in Paris with Maurice Ravel.

In 1904, Vaughan Williams discovered English folk songs, which were fast becoming extinct owing to 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.

In 1905, Vaughan Williams conducted the first concert of the newly founded Leith Hill Music Festival at Dorking and thereafter held that conductorship until 1953, when he passed the baton to his successor, William Cole.

Vaughan Williams's music, although embodying the composer's own unique voice, often reflects the influence of Ravel, his mentor for three months in Paris in 1908. Ravel described Vaughan Williams as "the only one of my pupils who does not write my music."


The Wasps (1909)


March Past of the Kitchen Utensils


In 1909, he composed incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play, a stage production at Cambridge University of Aristophanes's The Wasps. The next year, he had his first big public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (at The Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral) and his choral symphony A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1). He enjoyed a greater success with A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) in 1914, conducted by Geoffrey Toye.

Vaughan Williams was 41 when World War I erupted. He could have avoided war service entirely. Having been educated in public school, he could have tried for a commission. Instead, he chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer he was commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery. 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 complete 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 profoundly mystical style in the Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3), which draws on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer in that war; and Flos Campi, a work for viola solo, small orchestra, and wordless chorus. 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 (described as "A Masque for Dancing") which is drawn not from the Bible but from William Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job. He also composed a Te Deum in G for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury.

King's Weston (At the Name of Jesus) (1925)

Riders to the Sea (1932)

Symphony No. 4 (1935)

I. Allegro

IV. Finale: Epilogo Fugato


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 frequent "pastoral" orchestral works he composed; indeed, its almost unrelieved tension, drama, and dissonance has 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 mean." Two years later, Vaughan Williams made a historic recording of the work with the same orchestra for HMV (His Master's Voice), one of his very rare commercial recordings. During this period, he lectured in America and England, and conducted the Bach Choir. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in the King's Birthday Honours of 1935, having previously declined a knighthood.

His music now entered a mature lyrical phase, as in the Five Tudor Portraits; the "morality" The Pilgrim's Progress; 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.

Symphony No. 5 (1943)


Symphony No. 6 (1947)

Scherzo: Allegro vivace


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 program behind this work.

In the 1950's, 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 married twice. His first wife, Adeline Fisher (daughter of the historian Herbert William Fisher), died in 1951 after many years of suffering from crippling arthritis.

In 1953 he married the poet Ursula Wood (1911-2007), whom he had known since the late 1930's and with whom he collaborated on a number of vocal works. Ursula later wrote Vaughan Williams's biography RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, which remains the standard work on his life.

Symphony No. 7 ("Sinfonia Antartica") (1953)



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.


Tuba Concerto (1954)

I Prelude: Allegro moderato


Symphony No. 8 (1956)

I. Fantasia (Variazoni senza tema)

II. Scherzo alla marcia

The "little eighth symphony," first performed in 1956, was followed by the Symphony No. 9 in E Minor of 1957. This last symphony was initially given a luke-warm reception after its first performance in May 1958, just three months before the composer's death. But this dark and enigmatic work is now considered by many to be a fitting conclusion to his sequence of symphonic works.

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 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" (Di scen di, Amor san to by Bi an co of Si e na, ca.1434) is entitled "Down Ampney" in honour of his birthplace.

He was to supervise the first recording of the ninth symphony (for Everest Records) with Boult; his death the night before the recording sessions were to begin resulted in Boult announcing to the musicians that their performance would be a memorial to the composer.

He died in 1958 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

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 everyone to make their own music, however simple, as long as it is truly their own.

Vaughan Williams's music has often been said to be characteristically English, in the same way as that of Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, and William Walton.

In Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd writes, "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 Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians in the years just before 1911, as having observed that in Vaughan Williams's style "one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new."

Vaughan Williams's music 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.

[8873 Rachmaninoff / 8872 Vaughan Williams / 8868 Joplin]