by Larry Rothe
Almost everything about him is misunderstood, starting with his name. Ralph Vaughan Williams. Ralph is pronounced Rafe (“any other pronunciation used to drive him mad,” his wife Ursula cautioned), to rhyme with safe and chafe, words his detractors might apply to his music. Vaughan is not his middle name, so he is not referred to as Williams. The surname is Vaughan Williams, not hyphenated but fused just the same. Ralph Vaughan Williams. Even today, fifty years after his death, his English countrymen simplify the issue and call him VW.
Enough about the name. That’s easy. What is less easy to explain is why this composer of nine symphonies, each symphony a masterpiece to greater or lesser extent, is not yet recognized—certainly not in this country—as one of the twentieth century’s greatest musical figures. He was not necessarily a ground-breaker, but we need only listen to his symphonies to discover how visionary, how embracing, how provocative, and how inspiring he could be: how universal. Often, however, and largely due to his own attitude toward his work, he is dismissed as a representative of the English pastoral school, someone who turned out appealing but determinedly regional music, a nationalist, respected but never to be spoken of in the same breath as others who have worn the nationalist label with distinction, composers such as Dvořák or Sibelius or Copland.
His life spanned an epoch. He was born on October 12, 1872, in the village of Down Ampney, in Gloucestershire, about ninety miles west of London. The name “Down Ampney” calls up images of stone churches, rolling green countryside, meat-paste sandwiches taken with Earl Grey poured from a china kettle, public-house pints sipped beside the roaring fire while Nigel bests Bob at darts—the stereotypes that once upon a time captivated North American English majors, those lovers of Dickens and Hardy who were resigned to the knowledge that, for all their efforts, their British accents would never be genuine.
Down Ampney seems indeed to have produced beloved stereotypes, or to have been produced by them. By the time VW died, on August 26, 1958, the times had left that world behind. Despite his breeding, however, and setting aside the English gentilities of tea-time and a constitutional tolerance of inadequately heated rooms, he was not a character out of Masterpiece Theater and he was no invention of the BBC. He drew strength from his roots. He fused skepticism with vision. He was the product of folk-song and hymns, an occasional pint of bitter, an artist’s passion to communicate, and the twentieth century, with all that that century meant to his country, including a vanishing rural life, a generation maimed in body and spirit by the Great War, and a populace tested and tried in the greater war that followed. His accent was the real thing.
VW’s pedigree was as British as could be. His maternal grandparents were Josiah Wedgwood (grandson of the potter) and Caroline Darwin, sister of the great Charles. His father, a village vicar, was a more or less dispensable figure in the son’s life. He died when Ralph was two and a half, but the boy seems not to have experienced any particular sense of deprivation as he was growing up.
Upon the vicar’s death, Ralph moved with his mother to Josiah Wedgwood’s magnificent manor, Leith Hill Place. We can dispense with other biographical details quickly. Ralph studied at the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge, and for further lessons he sought out Max Bruch in Berlin and Ravel in Paris. He became a collector of English folk song, edited the Anglican hymnal, introduced himself as a symphonist in 1909 with his Sea Symphony, and followed that in 1910 with his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, a passionate yet serene meditation whose hymn-like harmonies evoke a cathedral’s vast spaces. In the First World War he served as an ambulance orderly, and we can only guess how his sense of life’s fragility was shaped by what he saw, tending the wounded on French battlefields. After the Armistice, he composed: chamber music, choral works, film scores, songs, symphonies, three full-length operas that receive scant attention and a one-act opera (Riders to the Sea) that deserves better than it gets. He conducted. He lectured.
By the time his long life ended, he had carved out a place as thespokesperson for English music. Yet another British composer put this into perspective. In a 1990 interview, Michael Tippett told me that, in essence, VW had created a brand: “He made what he thought of as English music.”
English music. That is what he set out to create. Many potential listeners seem to have accepted his desire to write English music as proof that he managed to do so. Much VW is indeed so British in flavor (or what we think of as British, thanks to him) that the music does not travel well. His symphonies, however, mark him as a genuinely universal spirit. There. I’ve used the word again. Universal. Of course I mean that as a compliment. VW would not have taken it that way. He insisted that no such thing as universality in music exists (as Simon Heffer makes so clear in his 2001 biography of the composer, Vaughan Williams). While he was proud to be a nationalist, posterity has taken him too literally at his word. The consensus among many is that his scope is limited.
The irony is that what VW found in rural England convinced him that music is for everyone. One of his Cambridge degrees was in music, but the other was in history. In other words, he was not afflicted with the tunnel vision that can be bred by exclusive study in a single field. He was able to place music and the other arts in historical context, and he developed a sense of cultural tradition that translated quickly into his desire to instill others with a love of their native cultural heritage.
In 1902, he gave the first of his university extension lectures on music, at a technical school in Bournemouth. A journalist in attendance reported that VW had taken the radical step of illustrating his talk with music examples. “This is an entirely new idea and one which enhances the value of the lectures and makes them more intelligible to those who possess only a rudimentary knowledge of music.” Within the year he would begin his own research into folk songs of the English countryside, asking locals to sing him the songs that their parents, and their parents’ parents, had taught them, and notating these melodies as he heard them.
He became a popularizer, à la Aaron Copland. He wanted, he said, to “break down the distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’—all music should be classical and all music should be popular.” He believed music to be “the subtlest, most sensitive, and purest means of self-expression.” That last statement is from his 1912 essay “Who Wants the English Composer,” in which he also outlines his thoughts about how the most elaborate forms of music have music’s most elemental forms at their core: “…What the artist should be concerned with is the raw material. Have we not all about us forms of musical expression which we can take and purify and raise to the level of great art? For instance, the lilt of the chorus at a music-hall joining in a popular song, the children dancing to a barrel organ, the rousing fervour of a Salvation Army hymn, St Paul’s and a great choir singing in one of its festivals, the Welshmen striking up one of their own hymns whenever they win a goal at the international football match, the cries of the street pedlars, the factory girls singing their sentimental songs?” Except for his talk of “purifying” the raw material and raising it “to the level of great art,” this love of the vernacular suggests artistic kinship with America’s own Charles Ives.
In 1904 VW signed on as editor of the Church of England’s hymnal. A dedicated agnostic, he came to understand, as his wife Ursula wrote in her 1964 biography R.V.W., “that for many people the music the Church gave them each week was the only music in their lives and that it was all too often unworthy both of their faith and of music itself.” He intended to make that right, and his versions of Anglican hymns are sung to this day. His work on the hymnal extended VW’s reach far beyond the concert hall, into the lives of his countrymen, for churchgoing in those days was more common than now and hymns offered an outlet for spiritual expression. As VW became an artist of increasingly high profile, he never lost his belief in music’s essential place in the lives of men and women from every part of society.
Populism is a giant step on the way to universality, whether or not that is your destination, and in hymns and folk music VW discovered a voice at once unique and multilingual. In 1914, in the “Course No. 1 of the Home Music Study Union,” he maintains that “If an art is to live it must spring directly from the life and character of the people where it had its origins. No art has any strength or life which is imported from without and planted down on a community from the outside….
“We [the English] shall not evolve great music by trying to fit our home-made ideas to foreign forms. The nobility of Beethoven, the passionate utterance of Verdi, grew out of their own nationality.” To create his brand of English music, he had, as Michael Tippett said, “to break free from the very strong Germanic influence which was all over Europe and America.” VW began composing at a time when the temptation was strong to imitate German models. Americans such as Edward MacDowell and Henry Hadley (first SFS Music Director) often gave in, writing skillfully made but usually derivative works, sometimes even adopting German titles in a misguided attempt to lend the music greater cachet. Against such attitudes and approaches, VW proposed his brand of nationalism.
His insistence on the regional, however important in helping him break away from accepted templates, diminished his reputation, and many potential lovers of his work have no doubt avoided his music because of his aggressively nationalist stance.
Michael Tippett believed that the overtly international impulse his own music exhibited, and the music of his compatriot Benjamin Britten—both of them a generation younger than VW—disappointed the older composer, who thought that “we had somehow let down his dream of national music.” While VW identified folk-song as the link between music and daily life, he seems to have been determined to ignore the simple and self-evident fact that folk music emerges not from national longings but from human needs. Folk tunes may reflect a nation. The sentiments set to the music cover a wider range: lost love, say, or a mother’s despair at a son going to battle. No matter where the songs originate, they find their themes in the everyday. VW himself admitted this in his Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for “Folk-Song” in 1929: “An art if it is to have life must be able to trace its origin to a fundamental human need…. To this the art of music is no exception; [the British composer Hubert] Parry has pointed out that the universal law of evolution demands that we should be able to trace even the most elaborate composition of Beethoven or Wagner back to some primitive germ. This primitive, spontaneous music has been called ‘folk-song’…. It has been said that if we did not know by experience of the existence of folk-song we should have to presuppose it theoretically to account for the art of music.”
Perhaps unwittingly, VW made a case for music’s universality when he described music as “something which is necessary to our being,…a serious factor in our life.” If some of his works are so rooted in English soil that they cannot easily be transplanted, the nine symphonies are different. These works are filled with serious factors—seriously dramatic, seriously affirmative: necessary. In the symphonies, VW distances himself increasingly from a “national music.” Folk song liberated him. It did not confine him to England’s shores. It enabled him to join company with the likes of Beethoven and Verdi, composers he loved, and whose nationalities are probably the last things we think of, when we think of those two. Folk song enabled him, finally, to speak a musical language that can be understood by all.
The only way to experience the music is to listen, but I want to offer some words about the Vaughan Williams symphonies.
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) VW’s symphonic debut announced the arrival of a composer who could command a broad orchestral canvas, and of an artist at the center of the British choral tradition, determined to give that tradition broader meaning. A Sea Symphony is an hour-long work for orchestra, chorus, and a male and a female soloist. The words are Walt Whitman’s. This oceanic saga opens with a full-blooded vocal fanfare (“Behold, the sea itself!”) that may suggest we’re in for a musical version of Master and Commander, but soon we understand that this voyage is spiritual. The Sea Symphony is disguised as a late Victorian/Edwardian work, opulent in sound and gesture, yet it is aimed at a new century. Stripped of sentimentality, plotted for maximum drama, steeped in the harmonies of hymn and folk music, this honest, idealistic work is a journey toward something finally named at its climax: the transcendent.
A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) This four-part tone poem dedicated to the composer’s adopted city is less travelogue than an impression of the great metropolis, an attempt to arouse the kind of emotion that London might stir in visitor or native, circa 1913. As such, it is a historical portrait, one that shuns the pomp and circumstance of Edwardian England. We hear folk-like tunes, but also the bustle of commerce and urban commotion. The slow movement takes us to Bloomsbury Square on a gray autumn afternoon, while the conclusion—frenetic, cataclysmic, elegiac—was inspired by a line from H.G. Wells: “…the river passes, London passes, England passes….” Don’t expect jingoism from Vaughan Williams.
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Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3)
The Lark Ascending, in which VW tries to have the last word on serenity in music, has probably done more than any of his works to mark him as a pastoral composer. You can’t say the same of thePastoral Symphony. No meadows here, only the ravaged fields of World War I France. This music owes more to VW’s studies with Ravel than to his love of English folk song, for this is a work of impressionism, bits of melodies entering and exiting before we can fix any one of them in our memory, painting a landscape through musical cubism. The symphony’s placid surface and abundance of tunes mask its radicalism, and even the folk-song elements are sharp-edged and confrontational. The ending is a dream of peace, with a voice coming from afar—a soprano, offstage, singing a wordless vocal line. Despite this conclusion, despite a sound-world as pure as spring water, this work is full of anxiety.
Symphony No. 4
Completed in 1934, this is one of the twentieth century’s most aggressive, powerful symphonies. From its explosive opening to its equally explosive final moments, it is filled with motor rhythms and sonic textures that come together only to be torn apart. In its mysterious, tension-filled quiet passages, forces regroup, to build again into annihilating momentum. Here you will find no nostalgia or lament, only uncontained energy that seems to leap from a suddenly uncoiled spring. When this music was first heard, some interpreted it as prophecy of the totalitarian frenzy about to be unleashed on the world. Vaughan Williams would have none of that: “I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external…but simply because it occurred to me like this.” Modeled on the Beethoven Fifth—right down to a fireball finale that emerges from groping wisps of sound—this surging, incinerating music is packed with kinetic force.
Symphony No. 5
The middle panel of VW’s war-time triptych, The Fifth is an isle of calm between the storm-driven waters of the composer’s Fourth and Sixth symphonies. Those who identified Vaughan Williams as a composer inspired by the English countryside were reassured by the Fifth, convinced that he had returned to his roots, yet the calm you find here is a calm of passion—a confidence, in the face of the ravaged world around him, that certain values and decencies are abiding. After all, much of the music here is borrowed from an opera he had been struggling with for years, The Pilgrim’s Progress, a luminous work based on John Bunyan’s decidedly un-luminous morality narrative from the seventeenth century. The peace of the Fifth is hard-won, and it is uttered in the voice of experience, not naïveté.
Symphony No. 6
Those who believed VW had settled down in the Fifth Symphony were unnerved by this one. When it was unveiled in 1948, many interpreted it as a look back on the war just ended. Like any worthy epic, it opens in the middle of things, and we are plunged at once into a huge struggle. The quiet final movement, which Vaughan Williams called “epilogue,” offers ten eerie minutes of static harmony, the strings searching for a way to rise above pianissimo. Hearing this, early listeners imagined an ash-covered moonscape, silent in the gray light of nuclear devastation. The space between the symphony’s explosive opening and its dazed conclusion is filled both with nightmares and with a vision of beauty that sweeps us up, for a view from above.
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No. 7)
Vaughan Williams turned his score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic into this four-movement symphony. The film tells the story of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, a journey that commenced in 1910 and ended in 1913 in the deaths of its leader, Robert Falcon Scott, and his four colleagues. The music, craggy and mysterious, evoking wild weather and the blinding snow-reflected dazzle of polar light, is among the most pictorial VW ever wrote.
Symphony No. 8
With the compact Eighth Symphony, VW abandons all pretense of being a “nationalist” composer. This is heavy on the percussion, and often fired by rhythms that Stravinsky might have invented. It is also sardonic, oddly unsettled, and questioning. The songful, dreamy slow movement, for strings alone, is full of gravitas, but this is gravitas rendered with a delicate touch. It is music by an octogenarian who seems to be going on twenty-five: completely vital, and wise.
Symphony No. 9
An ominous, rumbling opening recalls the first measures of another Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s. Like Beethoven’s final symphony, this one portrays huge conflicts and superhuman striving. Then, in its midst, a light-drenched seascape unfolds, but the vision retreats as suddenly as it appeared. Vaughan Williams had not composed music so angry and assertive since his Sixth Symphony. He died on the morning he was to have attended a recording session for his Ninth, shortly before his eighty-sixth birthday.
The great American author John Updike once said that the fiction of his equally great colleague, John Cheever, “makes me feel as though I’m living in an interesting world, in a world that is a kind of paradise, or could be, or was.” The same is true of the symphonies of Vaughan Williams.
Vaughan Williams: The Collector’s Edition is a 30-CD set that includes recordings of virtually all of VW’s music—the symphonies, of course (with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Vernon Handley), and also rarities such as the operas The Pilgrim’s Progress, Hugh the Drover, Sir John in Love, and Riders to the Sea. All this comes at a super-bargain price. No documentation, librettos, or song texts are included, but this is nonetheless an excellent way of immersing yourself in VW. (EMI Classics)
The Symphonies If you want to begin more modestly, a good way to get to know the Vaughan Williams symphonies is through the set of recordings André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded in the 1970s. The six-disc set is available at a bargain price. (RCA Red Seal)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis Many different recordings are available. Among the best is Sir John Barbirolli’s with the Sinfonia of London. (EMI Great Recordings of the Century)
The Pilgrim’s Progress Not in print in the US but available through overseas outlets via Amazon.com: The classic EMI recording of the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress with Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. The role of Pilgrim is sung by tenor John Noble, who created that role in the Cambridge University production that first revealed this work’s power. This is the version to have if you want to hear this work but prefer not to purchase The Collector’s Edition (see above)—and this version includes full documentation and libretto. (EMI Classics)
R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, by Ursula Vaughan Williams. Written by the composer’s widow, this biography is a strangely dull accumulation of facts and accounts of dinner parties. It’s at its best when it deals with VW’s impassioned dedication to the cause of music for everyman. (Oxford University Press)
Vaughan Williams on Music, edited by David Manning. VW wrote extensively on music, his own and that of others. This collection of his essays and excerpts from his essays, organized by subject, helps the reader get to know the composer as the complete musical animal he was. Vaughan Williams’s prose is no-nonsense and straightforward, and only in the program notes on his symphonies does he speak in technical terms that may leave the lay reader behind. (Oxford University Press)
The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, by Michael Kennedy. The standard life-and-works. (Oxford University Press)
Vaughan Williams, by Simon Heffer Even though this short biography is thin on musical commentary, it offers an excellent introduction to the composer. (Northeastern)
O Thou Transcendent: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams is a spectacular documentary by director Tony Palmer. In the course of its two and a half hours, we hear Vaughan Williams’s music, see the grand man in photos and film clips, and enjoy commentary by the likes of Ursula Vaughan Williams, VW biographer Michael Kennedy, and composers Michael Tippett, John Adams, Harrison Birtwistle, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. (Tony Palmer Films)
The Ralph Vaughn Williams Society