English composer and collector of folk songs. 1872 - 1958

"Why should music be 'original'? The object of art is to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty. The duty of the composer is to find the mot juste. It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before as long as it is the right thing to say at that moment."

For most people, Vaughan Williams is the epitome of Englishness, the personification of English music. Famed for his work with folk tunes, his greater symphonic works are also drawn from the musical wells of Albion. His compositions stand today as a legacy to one of the greatest English composers.

Early Influences

Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") was born 12th October, 1872 to the Reverend Arthur, and Margaret Vaughan Williams. His forebears include two famous great-great grandfathers, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, both on his mother's side. He lived his first three years in the vicarage, his birthplace in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, but the family left on his father's death, to live with his mother's family in Coldharbour, Surrey.

It was here that his aunt, Sophy Wedgwood, took him under her wing, and from the age of six, he began to learn the piano and violin. His schooling was, of course, a major factor in his musical development - whilst attending the Field House School at Rottingdean, he heard his first Wagner piece, the Ride of the Valkyries at a concert, and was by all accounts thrilled by the experience. His fascination with Bach began here, with his piano teacher, and was never to leave him.

He then attended Charterhouse from 1887 until 1890, distinguishing himself in the school orchestra, playing both the violin and viola. Following this, he declined the conventional call to Cambridge University, and chose to attend the Royal College of Music, where he studied for two years. It was here that he met and befriended Gustav Holst, a relationship that would develop both of them, as each shared criticisms of the other's work. He did take his place in Cambridge, at Trinity College, in 1892, where he read history, but also took composition lessons. He left Cambridge with degrees in History and Music, and returned to the Royal College, to continue his studies.

Marriage and Music

1897 was a pivotal year for the young Ralph. He got married to one Adeline Fisher, and honeymooned in Berlin. Spending some months there, he studied with Max Bruch and took further influence from Bach, Brahms and Wagner, widening his experience and in the process, learning a great deal about composition. His return to England meant a renewal of his determination to diversify, and he embarked on three projects; studying for his diploma as a Fellow of The Royal College of Organists, completing his doctoral thesis and collecting English folk songs.

The first was straightforward enough, the second seemed to give him little trouble (he received his doctorate in 1901, but the third filled him with a tremendous zeal and would change his life totally. His search for our musical heritage began in 1903 (the same year Cecil Sharp began collecting) and took him around the country for many years, a task which must have afforded him some pleasure. It certainly influenced his musical development, as many of his themes are pastoral in nature, and reflect the range of the rural areas he visited.

He was certainly a busy chap, co-editing The English Hymnal with Percy Dearmer, continuing to write, in addition to lecturing, teaching and working with local choirs and music festivals. (His sister Margaret founded the Leith Hill Festival, which he both sponsored and supported until 1953.)

1908 saw him in Paris, taking lessons in orchestration from Maurice Ravel, and he began to attract attention as a composer to be taken seriously. This period saw his earliest works performed and published (Bucolic Suite for Orchestra and Norfolk Rhapsody).

In 1910 his A Sea Symphony and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis were performed, to much acclaim. He was certainly taken seriously, and began to settle into a routine, composing a wide variety of pieces, including A London Symphony, first performed in 1914. Then his peace was shattered, along with everyone else's.

War and Peace

The outbreak of World War I spurred him to a much different action. A truly proud Englishman, he desired to serve as best he could, and enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served in France and Salonika for three years before accepting a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery and being posted to back to France. The war had changed him. His close friend George Butterworth, who had encouraged him to write A London Symphony, was killed.

The end of hostilites brought some measure of peace, but he was disturbed. "I sometimes dread coming back to life with so many gaps", he said on his return to England. He, like many others had lost family and friends in the conflict. But life went on for him, as for many others. He returned home and accepted the post of Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music, and began his work anew.

His love of Englishness blossomed and bore fruit. His well-loved piece The Lark Ascending was performed in 1921, and his third symphony, Pastoral Symphony, the following year. "It's the very essence of you", Holst said of it when he heard it, and it truly was. For Ralph, it was evocative of his feelings for his own country whilst stationed in Ecoivres during the early part of the war, a powerful yearning to return to his peaceful and fruitful roots.

Modern Times

As art influences life, so technology affects art. The growth of cinema was making new demands on composers, and Vaughan Williams was no exception. The early 1940s saw him developing scores for a number of films, notably Forty-Ninth Parallel and Scott of the Antarctic.

Ever innovative, he was attracted to new and different instruments. Eager to experiment, he wrote Romance for Harmonica and Orchestra for Larry Adler, in 1952. This is famous, not for being the first classical piece for the harmonica (Jean Berger and Darius Milhaud had each written one), but because when it was played at the Proms, it was encored twice!

He continued to work, music tumbling from his prolific pen, despite advancing age and a small hearing loss. The 1950s saw his The Pilgrim's Progress, his 7th Symphony (The Sinfonia Antarctica) and the Tuba Concerto. He never seemed to age, or slow down. Even Adeline's death in 1951 could not stop him. (He remarried in 1953, to Usrula Wood).

Work seemed to be his life, and he was recognised as having a unique talent, English to the core. He continued to lecture, write and compose almost to his last breath, touring The United States and Canada, and continuing to receive many accolades. He was voted The National Arts Foundation of America's "outstanding musician of 1953", and in 1955, became the first musician to receive The Albert Medal of The Royal Society of Arts. His Eighth Symphony (dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli was received in 1956.

Even in his final years, he continued to compose and conduct. 1956 saw A Vision of Aeroplanes and 1957 his ninth symphony Symphony in E minor.

Finally, the greatest of us must lay down our tools. Ralph Vaughan Williams died from heart failure in his sleep, on 26th August 1958. Working to the last, he was intending to be at a recording of his 9th Symphony the following day. His funeral took place in Westminster Abbey, and at his request, Bach's Fugue in E flat and Maurice Green's Hymn Lord, let me know mine end were played.

The man and his legacy

There can be no doubt of Vaughan Williams' influence. He did much to enhance pride in our English musical heritage, whilst being unafraid to develop in new areas. His prolific output means that an -ography would be too massive by far, and a small selection will have to suffice.

What of the man himself? Well he was a traditionalist first, and a mould-breaker last. He insisted, for example, on the correct pronunciation of his name, as the old-fashioned "Rafe", rather than the modern "Ralph". He hated hurting others' feelings, and went out of his way to pacify any who were upset.

Whatever he did, he did with great humour. His fourth symphony was not well-received by the orchestra or conductor at first rehearsals. One story has it that one of the musicians (a clarinettist) questioned the score. The great man looked closely and said, "No, it's a B-flat. I know it looks wrong, and I know it sounds wrong, but it's right." Once, when asked what the symphony was about, he replied, "It is about F-minor".

He was also a modest man, declining many honours, and other than those mentioned above, only accepted an honorary doctorate and, in 1935, the Order of Merit. He said that the best accolade he could receive was for his music to be heard. Nonetheless, he finds a special place in the hearts of many, and ranks in with the greats of 20th century classical music.

His other accomplishments include Job - A Masque for Dancing, the hymn tunes For all the Saints and Come down O love Divine. He penned nine symphonies and five operas in addition to music for cinema, ballet and stage and choral music for church and orchestra. He also wrote and edited a number of books, including National Music and other Essays, Some thoughts on Beethoven's Choral Symphony, The English Hymnal and The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs with A.L. Lloyd.

Fittingly, his ashes were buried near Henry Purcell in Westminster Cathedral, two English musical greats resting in peace together.

Encyclopædia Britannica
various sleeve notes

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