Up to a point, Vaughan Williams’s background and upbringing were typical for an upper-middle-class English boy: birth in a grand country rectory (12 October 1872), followed by education at Charterhouse and a degree at Cambridge. But the family had strong intellectual inclinations (ancestors included Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood). Young Ralph began to compose at 6, then spent two years at the Royal College of Music before going to university, and continued studies in composition with Stanford (again at the RCM), then with Bruch in Berlin.
It was while he was at the Royal College that Vaughan Williams met Gustav Holst. The two formed a lasting friendship and shared many enthusiasms, including collecting folk song. Vaughan Williams’s folk-song researches convinced him that traditional folk tunes could reach heights comparable with the greatest ‘art’ music, and that they provided a pathway to a truly national style. Vaughan Williams’s response in his own work went way beyond the picturesque or nostalgic, drawing praise from Ravel (with whom he had lessons in 1908) and later from the folk-inspired modernist Bartók.
Vaughan Williams took time to reach his first maturity: the two breakthrough pieces were A Sea Symphony (1903–9) and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910). Despite his age and privileged background, he volunteered as a private in the First World War and experienced some of its most notorious horrors at first hand: musical echoes can be detected in several works, including the strangely ambiguous Pastoral Symphony (1922), the impassioned cantata Dona nobis pacem (1936) and the turbulent Sixth Symphony (1944–7). After the Armistice in 1918, Vaughan Williams joined the staff of the RCM and became conductor of the Bach Choir. While his conducting technique had its limitations he was a powerful interpreter of his own music, as recordings of the Fourth (1931–4) and Fifth (1938–43) Symphonies and Dona nobis pacem testify. As he entered his seventies he developed a new strand to his career: film music.
A man of great integrity and generosity, Vaughan Williams did much to help young composers and performers, worked to help musical refugees from Germany during the Second World War and stood up against injustice whenever he could. During WW2 he testified on behalf of Michael Tippett, who was a pacifist, and protested against the banning of music by the communist Alan Bush despite disagreeing strongly with both composers’ politics. At home he stayed to care for his crippled wife, Adeline, even after he had met the woman who was to become his second wife, Ursula (née Lock), in 1938. He refused all honours apart from the Order of Merit, and even came to regret accepting that.
Vaughan Williams’s output was large, including operas (notably Riders to the Sea, 1925–32, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1925–52), chamber and instrumental works. At the core of his output, however, are the nine symphonies, the concertos for oboe (1943-4) and tuba (1954) and the concerto-like The Lark Ascending (1914), the Tallis Fantasia, the ballet Job (1927–30), and such vocal masterpieces as On Wenlock Edge (1908–9), Five Mystical Songs (1911), Serenade to Music (1938) and the Three Shakespeare Songs (1951). The pastoral element in his music is only one side of a multi-faceted musical personality. In many of his works the imprint of troubled times is as clearly discernible as in the music of Shostakovich. At his finest, he is one of the few British composers who genuinely deserves to be called ‘visionary’.
Profile © Stephen Johnson
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