Composer Profile: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1
Ralph Vaughan Williams in later life.

Unlike the musical wunderkinds Mozart and Mendelssohn, Ralph (‘Rafe’) Vaughan Williams was a slow and steady developer musically. The son of an Anglican vicar, Arthur, he was descended on his mother Margaret’s side from the manufacturing and philanthropic Wedgwood family. From the age of five he had piano lessons with his aunt Sophy Wedgwood, but preferred the violin, which he began to study a year later. Although his family doubted that he had the talent required to succeed as a professional composer and musician they were staunch in their support, enabling him to study at the Royal College of Music and Cambridge. He also spent several months in 1907-08 studying with Ravel in Paris. It’s fair to say that, regardless of their doubts, ultimately his family’s faith was not misplaced.

Raised in a liberal social and philosophical tradition, in adulthood Vaughan Williams was a cheerful agnostic who continued to attend church for the sake of his family and retained a deep respect for much that was traditional culturally, including the King James Bible, which he continued to read and love throughout his life.

This love for culture and tradition, and particularly the English cultural tradition, had a significant influence on his music. Prior to Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ variations in 1899, the English musical tradition had been virtually non-existent for several centuries. Vaughan Williams rejected the Germanic sound which, since Handel and through Mendelssohn, had been dominant in English music, and instead turned his attention to the earlier works of Tallis and Purcell and the folk music tradition of the British Isles. Indeed, through his efforts in travelling and recording, music has been preserved which otherwise would have been lost amidst the sweeping social changes of the early twentieth century.

Although he was forty-two and in the middle of building a successful career as a composer in 1914, nonetheless Vaughan Williams volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps and drove ambulances in France and later Greece until transferring to the Royal Artillery as a lieutenant in 1917. The War left its mark both physically and emotionally: he lost many friends, including a young fellow-composer named George Butterworth, and suffered hearing damage which would lead to deafness in later life.

In 1919 he was demobilised and returned to civilian life, having composed nothing for four years. He was invited to return to the Royal College of Music as a composition teacher, and remained on the faculty for the next twenty years. In the 1920s, due to his wife’s deteriorating health, he moved to the countryside, settling in Dorking. His musical tone darkened in the 1930s as the shadow of another war began to loom over Europe, culminating in the anti-war cantata Dona nobis pacem in 1936, which was followed by a five-year dry spell.

Ralph Vaughan Williams graveDuring the Second World War the now-aging Vaughan Williams engaged in civilian work for the war effort, which included a number of artistic and cultural endeavours as well as relief work for refugees fleeing the Nazis. He began to compose again, working on several more symphonies and an opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, based on the allegory by John Bunyan, which premiered at Covent Garden as part of a Festival of Britain in 1951. (it never caught on). That same year his wife, Adeline, died, and in 1953 he married again, to Ursula Wood, the widow of a British army captain, with whom he had been having a discreet affair for many years. They moved back to London in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, for which he composed a work based on the tune of the Old Hundredth Psalm (the tune of ‘All People That On Earth Do Dwell’) and the 34th Psalm (‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’)

Vaughan Williams died suddenly on 26th of August 1958 and is buried near Henry Purcell in Westminster Abbey.

Among Vaughan Williams many, many works, which included symphonies, opera, choral works on both secular and religious themes, chamber music, and settings of numerous folk songs, perhaps his two best-known pieces are The Lark Ascending and his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. There is something quintessentially English about his work, which makes him one of my favourite classical composers.


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