Sunday, 19 July 2020

Ralph Vaughan Williams

I gained first awareness of the composer Vaughan Williams as a child. Aged 9, (in what would now be school Year 5) I was chosen to sing the opening verse of "Linden Lea" to open a whole school concert. Bearing in mind this was a school which went from ages 3-18, and could summon a large audience of parents and governors, I should have been somewhat daunted at the prospect. (I certainly would be now.) But children either possess an uncanny self confidence or are completely oblivious of occasion,  which keep nerves completely at bay and I don't remember being remotely nervous. I knew the song and enjoyed singing - so what was the problem?! (I do however remember wondering how the composer's name was pronounced and being rather grateful I was not called upon to read any introduction!)

Born 12 October 1872 Ralph Vaughan Williams was an English composer whose works include operas, ballets, chamber music, secular and religious vocal pieces and orchestral compositions written over sixty years. Strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folk-song, his work marked a "clear break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century." (Wikipedia)

A student at Charterhouse, he entered the Royal College of Music rather than completing his education, briefly transferring to Trinity College, Cambridge to study music. Vaughan Williams' first composition teacher at the RCM was Hubert Parry, whom he idolised. In his "Musical Autobiography" of 1950 Vaughan Williams describes a quote from Parry which gives perspective to his choral work.
Parry once said to me: "Write choral music as befits an Englishman and a democrat". We pupils of Parry have, if we have been wise, inherited from him the great English choral tradition, which Tallis passed on to Byrd, Byrd to Gibbons, Gibbons to Purcell, Purcell to Battishill and Greene, and they in their turn through the Wesleys, to Parry. He has passed on the torch to us and it is our duty to keep it alight."
At Cambridge Vaughan Williams studied composition with Charles Wood, and after graduating in 1894 he returned to the RCM to find Charles Villiers Stanford as his new professor of composition. Once a maverick who blazed a trail, Stanford had become musically deeply conservative and the two clashed frequently, although it's acknowledged Stanford held Vaughan Williams in deep affection, recognising his talent. Vaughan Williams became a friend and fellow critic of Gustav Holst, a fellow student who became a lifelong friend.

Initially Vaughan Williams focussed on collecting folk songs, building on his passion for Tudor music and tight modal style. His mature style developed as he produced choral music, orchestral works and chamber music. Born into a family with a strong morality and progressive social outlook his aim was to make music accessible, rather than focus on the ornate and challenging.

Despite being forty one in 1914 Vaughan Williams volunteered for active service in the Great War, and stopped composing during the war years. Older than most the war took a huge emotional toll on him and contributed to deafness which he suffered in later years. By 1936 the shadow of war was looming again and he was compelled to write Dona nobis pacem as a plea for peace.

He died suddenly, (in rude health despite reaching the age of 85) on 26th August 1958. His ashes were interred near the burial plots of Purcell and Stanford in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey.

At the turn of the century Vaughan Williams was among the first to travel into the countryside to collect folk songs and carols from singers, preserving them for future generations to enjoy. As musical editor of The English Hymnal he composed several hymn tunes that remain popular (including Sine Nomine, “For all the Saints” and Down Ampney, “Come down O love Divine”). But is perhaps as a composer of symphonies that he is best known. Although Vaughan Williams did not complete the first of them until he was thirty-eight years old, the nine symphonies span nearly half a century of his creative life.

The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society states his "youthful atheism eventually settled down into cheerful agnosticism", yet from 1904-1906 he was Musical Editor of the English Hymnal, and English church music owes an enormous debt to his creative work. He wrote his "Mass in G Minor" for double chorus and dedicated it to his friend Gustav Holst stating "There is no reason an atheist could not write a good Mass." He certainly achieved his aim of making his music accessible, and not only to his own generation.

He studied closely the work of Tudor and Elizabethan composers, including Thomas Tallis whose Psalm tune Why Fumeth in Fight? was soon to form the basis of one of Vaughan Williams’ greatest works, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This immersion in English folk song, hymn tunes, the philosophy of accessibility and the music of Elizabethan Tudor music combined to produce the most unique output of any composer in recent times. Even his unison choral works are full of colour and atmosphere. However my favourite choral piece is his Te Deum in G for double choir because it is such a joy to sing!

Our choir recently recorded "Come My Way, My Truth, My Life" and "The Call" - others' recordings are linked below:-

The Call

However for me the most stirring of Vaughan William's work is undoubtedly The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune arranged for "All people that on earth do dwell." It would get my vote for a first "Call to Worship" hymn on our first full Sunday back in church.

Full choir, something like this, if only in my head; I will be processing with a full heart and rejoicing in singing God's praises in person once again, with my friends.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks much for this. Perhaps RVW's greatest monument is the English Hymnal. His work as music editor ensured that the best in hymnology would continue to flourish – as it does to this day.