Ralph Vaughan Williams: Wikis


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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams OM (pronounced /ˈreɪf ˈvɔːn ˈwɪl.i.əmz/)[1] (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; this also influenced his editorial approach to the English Hymnal, which began in 1904, many folk song arrangements being set as hymn tunes, in addition to several original compositions.




Early years

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams (the surname Vaughan Williams is an unhyphenated double-barrelled name), was vicar. Following his father's death in 1875 he was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan née Wedgwood (1843–1937), the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, a Wedgwood family home in the North Downs. He was also related to the Darwins, Charles Darwin being a great-uncle. 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.[2]

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,[3] 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 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 first recording of the Sixth Symphony in 1949 with the New York Philharmonic, and giving the U.S. premiere of the Ninth Symphony in Carnegie Hall in 1958.

Another friendship made at the RCM, crucial to Vaughan Williams's development as a composer, was with fellow-student Gustav Holst whom he first met in 1895. From that time onwards they spent several 'field days' reading through and offering constructive criticism on each other's works in progress[4].

Vaughan Williams's composition 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 took a big step forward in his orchestral style when he studied in Paris with Maurice Ravel.

In 1904, Vaughan Williams discovered English folk songs, which were fast becoming extinct owing to the oral tradition through which they existed being undermined by 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. During this time he strengthened his links to prominent writers on folk music, including the Reverend George B. Chambers.

In 1905, Vaughan Williams conducted the first concert of the newly founded Leith Hill Music Festival at Dorking which he was to conduct until 1953, when he passed the baton to his successor, William Cole[5].

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

Two World Wars

A statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams in Dorking.

Vaughan Williams was 41 when World War I erupted. Though he could have either avoided war service entirely, or tried for a commission, he chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer in France and Salonika,[6] he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery on 24 December 1917.[7] On one occasion, though too ill to stand, he continued to direct his battery while lying on the ground.[8] Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of hearing loss which eventually caused severe deafness in old age.[2] 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 somewhat mystical style in A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3), which draws on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer in that war; and Flos Campi, a work for solo viola, small orchestra, and wordless chorus. From 1924 a new phase in his music began, characterized 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: 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 for the enthronement of Cosmo Gordon Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury. 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 "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 mean." Two years later, Vaughan Williams made a historic recording of the work with the same orchestra for HMV (His Master's Voice), his only commercial recording. 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,[9] having previously declined a knighthood.[2]

Vaughan Williams was an intimate life long 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."[10] He was a regular visitor to her home and often attended parties there. Cohen premiered Vaughan Williams's "Hymn Tune Prelude" in 1930, which he dedicated to her. She later introduced the piece throughout Europe during her concert tours. In 1933 she premiered his Piano Concerto in C major, a work which was once again dedicated to her. Cohen was given the exclusive right to play the piece for a period of time. Cohen played and promoted Vaughan Williams's work throughout Europe, the USSR, and the United States.

His music now entered a mature lyrical phase, as in the Five Tudor Portraits; 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. 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 programme behind this work.

Late harvest

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. The Eighth Symphony, first performed in 1956, was followed by the much weightier Symphony No. 9 in E minor of 1956–57. This last symphony was initially given a lukewarm 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 [11] to be a fitting conclusion to his sequence of symphonic works.

He also completed a range of instrumental and choral works, including a Tuba Concerto, An Oxford Elegy on texts of Matthew Arnold, and the Christmas cantata Hodie. He also wrote an arrangement of The Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune for the Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth II. 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."[12] It is noteworthy that in his opera The Pilgrim's Progress he changed the name of the hero from John 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" (Discendi, Amor santo by Bianco of Siena, ca.1434) is entitled "Down Ampney" in honour of his birthplace.

He also worked as a tutor for Birkbeck College.[13]

In the 1950s, the composer supervised recordings of all but his Ninth Symphony by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Decca.[14] 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.[15] He was to supervise the first recording of the Ninth Symphony (for Everest Records) with Boult; his death on 26 August 1958 the night before the recording sessions were to begin provoked Boult to announce to the musicians that their performance would be a memorial to the composer.[16] These recordings, including the speeches by the composer and Boult, have all been reissued by Decca on CD.

He 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 all persons to make their own music, however simple, as long as it is truly their own.


He was married twice. His first marriage was in 1896 to Adeline Fisher (daughter of the historian Herbert William Fisher). She died in 1951 after many years of suffering from crippling arthritis.

In 1953 he married the poet Ursula Wood (1911–2007). At this time they moved from Dorking, Surrey back to London and occupied a house at 10 Hanover Terrace, Regents Park. She had met Vaughan Williams in 1938 and they had begun an affair while still married to their respective spouses. After her first husband's death, Wood continued her relationship with Vaughan Williams, apparently with the tacit approval of Adeline.[17] Ursula became Ralph's literary advisor and personal assistant, writing the libretto to his choral work The Sons of Light, and contributing to that of The Pilgrim's Progress and Hodie.[18] There were no children by either marriage.


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 Sir William Walton.[19] 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."

His 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. 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.[2] His earlier works sometimes show the influence of Maurice Ravel, his teacher for three months in Paris in 1908. Ravel described Vaughan Williams as "the only one of my pupils who does not write my music."[19]


See also: Compositions by Ralph Vaughan Williams.


  • The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1921). Libretto: Ralph Vaughan Williams (from John Bunyan) (Later incorporated, save for the final section, into The Pilgrim's Progress)

Incidental music


  • Old King Cole (1923)
  • On Christmas Night (1926)
  • Job: A Masque for Dancing (1930)
  • The Running Set (1933)
  • The Bridal Day (1938–39)




  • Toward the Unknown Region, song for chorus and orchestra, setting of Walt Whitman (1906)
  • Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus and orchestra, settings of George Herbert (1911)
  • Fantasia on Christmas Carols for baritone, chorus, and orchestra (1912; arranged also for reduced orchestra of organ, strings, percussion)
  • Mass in G Minor for unaccompanied choir (1922)
  • Sancta Civitas (The Holy City) oratorio, text mainly from the Book of Revelation (1923–25)
  • Te Deum in G (1928)
  • Benedicite for soprano, chorus, and orchestra (1929)
  • In Windsor Forest, adapted from the opera Sir John in Love (1929)
  • Three Choral Hymns (1929)
  • Magnificat for contralto, women's chorus, and orchestra (1932)
  • Five Tudor Portraits for contralto, baritone, chorus, and orchestra (1935)
  • Dona nobis pacem, text by Walt Whitman and other sources (1936)
  • Festival Te Deum for chorus and orchestra or organ (1937)
  • Serenade to Music for sixteen solo voices and orchestra, a setting of Shakespeare, dedicated to Sir Henry Joseph Wood on the occasion of his Jubilee (1938)
  • "Six Choral Songs To Be Sung In Time Of War" (1940)
  • A Song of Thanksgiving (originally Thanksgiving for Victory) for narrator, soprano solo, children's chorus, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1944)
  • An Oxford Elegy for narrator, mixed chorus and small orchestra (1949)
  • Three Shakespeare Songs for SATB unaccompanied, composed for The British Federation of Music Festivals National Competitive Festival (1951)
  • Oh Taste and See, a motet setting of Psalm 34:8. The original SATB version was composed for the Coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in June 1953. (1953)
  • Hodie, a Christmas oratorio (1954)
  • Folk songs of the Four Seasons for unaccompanied SSA chorus.
  • Epithalamion for baritone solo, chorus, flute, piano, and strings (1957)
  • A Choral Flourish for unaccompanied SATB chorus, composed for a large choral event in the Royal Albert Hall at the invitation of (and dedicated to) Alan Kirby (c. 1952)

Arrangements of Christian Hymns

Vaughan Williams was the musical editor[22] of the English Hymnal of 1906, and the co-editor with Martin Shaw of Songs of Praise of 1925 and the Oxford Book of Carols of 1928, all in collaboration with Percy Dearmer.


  • "Linden Lea", song (1901)
  • The House of Life, six sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, set to music (1904)
  • Songs of Travel (1904)
  • "The Sky Above The Roof" (1908)
  • On Wenlock Edge, song cycle for tenor, piano and string quartet (1909)
  • Along the Field, for tenor and violin
  • Three Poems by Walt Whitman for baritone and piano (1920)
  • Four Poems by Fredegond Shove: for baritone and piano (1922)
  • Four Hymns (1914)
  • Merciless Beauty for tenor, two violins, and cello
  • Four Last Songs to poems of Ursula Vaughan Williams
  • Ten Blake songs, song cycle for high voice and oboe (1957)

Chamber and Instrumental

  • Piano Quintet in C minor for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano (1903)
  • String Quartet No. 1 in G minor (1908)
  • Phantasy Quintet for 2 violins, 2 violas and cello (1912)
  • Six Studies in English Folk-Song, for violoncello and piano (1926)
  • String Quartet No. 2 in A minor ("For Jean, on her birthday," 1942–44)
  • Sonata in A minor for violin and piano (1952)
  • Romance for Viola and Piano (undated)


  • Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes (Bryn Calfaria, Rhosymedre, Hyfrydol) (1920)
  • Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1921)
  • A Wedding Tune for Ann (1943)
  • The Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune, harmonization and arrangement (1953)
  • Two Organ Preludes (The White Rock, St. David's Day) (1956)

Film, radio, and TV scores


  • English Folk Song Suite for military band (1923)
  • Sea Songs (1923)
  • Toccata Marziale for military band (1924)
  • Overture: Henry V for brass band (1933/34)
  • Flourish for Wind Band (1939)
  • Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes arranged from the organ piece for brass band (1955) and published by Salvationist Publishing and Supplies
  • Variations for brass band (1957)

A note on recordings

Vaughan Williams enjoys an extensive recorded legacy. Early recordings of individual symphonies made by Henry Wood (London), John Barbirolli (Fifth), Adrian Boult and Leopold Stokowski (both in the Sixth), and the composer's own recording of the Fourth, preceded several complete cycles. Stokowski's 1943 NBC Symphony broadcast of the Fourth Symphony has also been issued on CD, as has his 1964 Proms performance of the 8th with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sir Eugene Goossens recorded the 1920 edition of A London Symphony with the Cincinnati Orchestra for RCA Victor in 1941, the only recording of that version of the score ever made. Boult taped the first cycle (Symphonies 1 - 8) for Decca in the early 1950s, completing it with No. 9 for the Everest label in 1958; he re-recorded all nine for EMI between 1967 and 1972. Other cycles have followed from André Previn, Bernard Haitink, Bryden Thomson, Vernon Handley, Leonard Slatkin and Richard Hickox.

Several other foreign conductors have also recorded individual Vaughan Williams symphonies: Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein both recorded the Fourth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, the same orchestra with which Leopold Stokowski had made the first recording of the Sixth Symphony in 1949. This work was also recorded by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony in 1966. Paavo Berglund also recorded the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies and, among other CD releases, the Portuguese premiere of the Ninth Symphony, with Pedro de Freitas Branco conducting the National Symphony Orchestra of Portugal, has also been issued. Similarly, the US premiere of the Ninth Symphony, given by Leopold Stokowski in Carnegie Hall in 1958 'In Memoriam Vaughan Williams' has also been released on CD by Cala Records.

A first official release of the Symphony No. 5 conducted by the composer in 1952 was recently issued in the U.K. by Somm Recordings.

David Willcocks recorded much of the choral output for EMI in the 1960s and 1970s. Award-winning performances of the string quartets have followed on Naxos, which along with the Hyperion and Chandos labels have recorded much neglected material, including works for brass band and the rarely performed operas.

EMI Classics has issued a budget 30-CD set (34+ hours) with virtually all of Vaughan Williams's works, including alternative settings.


  • Vaughan Williams on Music, Ralph Vaughan Williams & David Manning. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195182392
  • Heirs & Rebels, Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gustav Holst; ed. Ursula Vaughan Williams & Imogen Holst. London, Oxford University Press, 1959.
  • Vaughan Williams, Simon Heffer. Northeastern; First American edition (March 1, 2001). ISBN 9781555534721.


  1. ^ Vaughan Williams, Ursula. (1964) R.V.W. A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford University Press. The preface, Notes on Names, says "Ralph's name was pronounced Rayf, any other pronunciation used to infuriate him."
  2. ^ a b c d Frogley, Alain (September 2004 — online edition May 2006). "‘Williams, Ralph Vaughan (1872–1958)’" (subscription required). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36636. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36636. Retrieved 16 January 2008. 
  3. ^ Vaughan-Williams, Ralph in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  4. ^ Heirs and Rebels by Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gustav Holst; Preface, pix
  5. ^ "Leith Hill Music Festival website". http://www.lhmf.co.uk/About.aspx. Retrieved 14 April 2008. 
  6. ^ "Ralph Vaughan Williams". Famous names in the First World War. The National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/medals-vaughanwilliams.asp. Retrieved 3 February 2010. 
  7. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30455, pp. 253–254, 1 January 1918. Retrieved on 3 February 2010.
  8. ^ Vaughan Williams, Ursula, RVW A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford University Press 1964 p. 130
  9. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 34166, p. 3596, 31 May 1935. Retrieved on 16 January 2008.
  10. ^ Fry, Helen (2008). Music and Men, the Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen. The History Press. 
  11. ^ Journal of the Vaughan Williams Society, No. 39, June 2007
  12. ^ Hugh Ottaway/Alain Frogley, "Ralph Vaughan-Williams": Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (subscription required). Retrieved 16 January 2008
  13. ^ Birkbeck, University of London Continuing Education Courses 2002 Entry. Birkbeck External Relations Department. 2002. p. 5. 
  14. ^ The Gramophone
  15. ^ Decca Records/Eclipse reissue
  16. ^ Everest Records' release of the 1958 recording.
  17. ^ John Bridcut (20 May 2008). "Sonata for three". Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1020534/Sonata-How-composer-Vaughan-Williams-shared-bedroom-mistress-40-years-junior--wife.html. Retrieved 19 July 2008. 
  18. ^ "Ursula Vaughan Williams (obituary)". The Times. 25 October 2007. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article2732710.ece. Retrieved 24 October 2007. 
  19. ^ a b [1] Roger S. Gordon, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Film Music, review, Positive Feedback on Line Issue 29, accessed May 12, 2008
  20. ^ The Death of Tintagiles
  21. ^ see "YouTube videoclip" under External Links
  22. ^ see "1956 audio interview" under External Links
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Center for Church Music songs and hymns entry for Ralph Williams

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-10-121958-08-26) was a British composer and folksong-collector who, in the early 20th century, played a key part in the forming of a distinctively national style of English classical music.


  • The duty of the words is to say just as much as the music has left unsaid and no more.
  • Art for art's sake has never flourished in England. We are often called inartistic because our art is unconscious. Our drama and poetry, like our laws and our constitution, have evolved by accident while we thought we were doing something else, and so it will be with music. The composer must not shut himself up and think about art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community – if we seek for art we shall not find it.
    • "Who Wants the English Composer?" (1912); cited from Ursula Vaughan Williams RVW (1964) pp. 101-2.
  • Before going any further may we take it that the object of art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties – of that, in fact, which is spiritual? And that the means which we employ to induce this revelation are those very senses and faculties themselves?
    • "The Letter and the Spirit", in the journal Music and Letters, vol. 1 (1920) p. 88.
  • The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation.
    • National Music (1934) p. 123.
  • The business of finding a nation's soul is a long and slow one at the best and a great many prophets must be slain in the course of it. Perhaps when we have slain enough prophets future generations will begin to build their tombs.
    • National Music (1934) p. 129.
  • I don't know whether I like it, but it's what I meant.
  • The audience is requested not to refrain from talking during the overture. Otherwise they will know all the tunes before the opera begins.
    • Note in the score to The Poisoned Kiss (1936).
  • The attitude of foreign to English musicians is unsympathetic, self-opinionated and pedantic. They believe that their tradition is the only one (this is specially true of the Viennese) and that anything that is not in accordance with that tradition is "wrong" and arises from insular ignorance.
    • Letter to Lord Kennet, 1941; cited from Ursula Vaughan Williams RVW (1964) p. 243.
  • Film composing is a splendid discipline, and I recommend a course of it to all composition teachers whose pupils are apt to be dawdling in their ideas, or whose every bar is sacred and must not be cut or altered.
    • "Film Music", The R. C. M. Magazine, February 1944.
  • Film contains potentialities for the combination of all the arts such as Wagner never dreamt of.
    • "Film Music", The R. C. M. Magazine, February 1944.
  • There [is] a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend, which comes to us all in the face of great artistic experiences. I had the same experience when I first heard an English folksong, when I first saw Michelangelo's Day and Night, when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge or had my first sight of New York City – the intuition that I had been there already.
    • "Musical Autobiography" (1950); cited from Ursula Vaughan Williams RVW (1964) p. 30.
  • In the next world, I shan't be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it.
    • Said to Sylvia Townsend Warner two weeks before his death; published in William Maxwell (ed.) The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner (1982) p. 168.

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:

Simple English

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born October 12, 1872
Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
Died August 26, 1958
London, England
File:Ralph Vaughan Williams in
Statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams in Dorking, England

Ralph Vaughan Williams (b. Down Ampney, Gloucs., 12 Oct 1872; d. London, 26 Aug 1958) was the most important English composer of his generation.

Vaughan Williams always pronounced his first name “Rafe” - (“Vaughan” rhymes with “born”). His father was a rector. Ralph was very young when his father died. The family moved to Dorking near London. He went to Charterhouse School and played the viola in the school orchestra. He studied at the University of Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music where Hubert Parry was his teacher.


Early career

Vaughan Williams wanted to be a good composer, so he went abroad to study with famous composers like Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. Yet he knew that he must not simply imitate these composers, so he also studied English folk song. He became good friends with the composer Gustav Holst. The two men always showed one another the music they were writing so that they could help one another by offering criticism.

In 1910 he wrote a work which became one of his best-known pieces of music: the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. The piece is for a string orchestra divided into two sections. It uses a theme by the famous 16th century composer Tallis. He also wrote hymn tunes for the English Hymnal. One of his most popular hymn tunes is the one called Sine Nomine sung to the words “For all the saints”. Another lovely work is The Lark Ascending. This is a short work for solo violin and orchestra. The violin sounds like a skylark singing in the sky. In 1934 he wrote a short piece for flute, harp and string orchestra called Fantasia on Greensleeves which is based on the famous English Renaissance tune Greensleeves.

Later works

During his long life Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies, works for the stage, songs, choral music and chamber music. In 1938 he wrote a famous piece called Serenade to Music for 16 solo singers and orchestra. It was one of several works he wrote inspired by Shakespeare. The words were from the play The Merchant of Venice. It was written for the 50th anniversary of Sir Henry Wood’s career as a conductor. In 1953 he wrote music for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, including a very short and simple motet O taste and see which has remained very popular with church choirs.

In his old age he became quite deaf. This was because of the noise of gunfire he had been exposed to when he was serving as a stretcher bearer in World War I.

His importance in English music

Some of Vaughan Williams’s best works are those where he makes his music sound like folk song. He loved the poetry of Housman and used some of the poems in a song cycle called On Wenlock Edge for tenor, piano and string quartet. His music always sounds English. He was born in the 19th century which was a time when people thought English musicians were not very good. Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar (who was a little older) made people realise that it was possible for an Englishman to write beautiful, moving music.


The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie; 1980 ISBN 1-56159-174-2


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