Ralph Vaughan Williams OM (pronounced /ˈreɪf ˈvɔːn ˈwɪl.i.əmz/) (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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery on 24 December 1917. 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. 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, having previously declined a knighthood.
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." 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.
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  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." 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.
In the 1950s, the composer supervised recordings of all but his Ninth Symphony by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Decca. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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."
Vaughan Williams was the musical editor 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.
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.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-10-12 – 1958-08-26) 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.
|Ralph Vaughan Williams|
October 12, 1872|
Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
August 26, 1958|
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.
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.
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.
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