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Vaughan Williams, Ralph

Category: Musician or composer

Ralph Vaughan Williams OM (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. 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. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in the King's Birthday Honours of 1935, having previously declined a knighthood.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father, the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams (1834-1875), was vicar. The surname Vaughan Williams is an unhyphenated double-barrelled name of Welsh origin. His father died when he was only 3.

Ralph as a child

He was a naturally gifted musician. At the age of six he began piano and basic composition lessons with his aunt, Sophy Wedgewood. He started playing the violin at the age of seven. In January 1887, at the age of fourteen, he attended Charterhouse School, which was one of the few schools at the time to encourage musical expression. After Charterhouse he attended the Royal College of Music (RCM). He read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge then returned to the RCM.

 

Initially Vaughan Williams produced very few compositions after leaving the RCM. He conducted, lectured, and edited music, notably that of Henry Purcell and the English Hymnal. Then in 1904 Vaughan Williams discovered English folk songs and carols, which were fast becoming extinct. He travelled the countryside, transcribing and preserving them. Later, he incorporated some songs and melodies into his own music, being fascinated by the beauty of the music. And it is clear that this source of music was a major influence on all his later work. It is notable that his first big public success was conducting the premiere of his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which is on this site.

Then came the event which was to really 'open the door' for him. 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. He had a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer in France and Salonika before becoming an officer. 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.

 

The war had a very profound effect on Vaughan Williams. After the war, “he adopted 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 ”. Judgement day.

We have seen that Vaughan Williams was naturally spiritually inspired, but that his door to perception was probably kicked open by War. His increasing deafness also had an impact as he sought for the music within and not that without. But there is one further source of his inspiration – love.

Adeline

Vaughan Williams was married twice. His first marriage was to Adeline Fisher in 1896, Adeline developed crippling arthritis from which she suffered until her death. In 1938, Vaughan Williams began a relationship with the married poet Ursula Wood. After Wood's husband died in 1942, Wood became Ralph's literary advisor and personal assistant and moved into his Surrey home, with the approval of Adeline, for whom Wood served as a carer until Adeline's death. 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.

Ursula

But this is not all, 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. She in turn was a great supporter of his work. She played and promoted Vaughan Williams's work throughout Europe, the USSR, and the United States.

These relationships all conspired to lift him to a new phase. 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, 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. This period in his music culminated in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor.

Ralph with Ursula

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."

Vaughan Williams continued to compose until his death. Serenade to Music, written for orchestra and sixteen vocal soloists, was composed in his early '70s and although many people considered Symphony No. 5 a swan song, he wrote Symphony No. 6 in 1946 in his mid '70s. But

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”.

Of course it could have just been the effect of watching his wife die in pain, at this stage she had only another 5 years left to live.

Williams arrives with Ursula for a concert in honour
of his 85th birthday at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957

His working relationship with Roy Douglas became invaluable as his musical assistant and amanuensis; he produced legible copies of Vaughan Williams's scores, resolved issues of orchestration and deciphered Vaughan Williams's often illegible handwriting. Before his death in 1958, Vaughan Williams completed three more symphonies - the Seventh, Sinfonia Antartica, based on his 1948 film score for Scott of the Antarctic; the Eighth Symphony, first performed in 1956; and the 'much weightier' Symphony No. 9 in E minor a “dark and enigmatic work”.

This is pure speculation, but my father fought in the Second World War and later in his life was haunted by nightmares of what he had had to go through. My father, like Vaughan Williams, was a man of peace, as such the memory of the deaths of his friends and the sights just returned and returned. My father particularly remembered the smell of the dead bodies as they rotted by the roadside. Maybe Vaughan Williams in his silent deaf world, unable to hear the music he composed, was transcribing what war was like.

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." In fact he ceased to believe in the God invented by the Christian church - that is all, the supposedly benign father figure who according to religions looks after everybody.  But Vaughan Williams' spiritual inclinations were very clear.

 

Vaughan Williams's music has often been said to be characteristically English. "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." and that Vaughan Williams's 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”.

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