organist, music editor and collector of folk music
Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire
in 1872, and was arguably the greatest British composer of the 20th
A champion of British cultural heritage in his own way, he died at the
age of 85 in 1958, and his ashes are fittingly interred in Westminster
received his training from Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford,
both composers influenced by Brahms. Early Vaughan Williams works have
their moments of Brahms and sometimes Wagner, but it is also very original,
due to Vaughan Williams' interest in English folksong (he was a major
collector). His original pieces and arrangements of British folksongs
and hymn tunes are some of the most songful and durable in the English
Vaughan Williams influences are diverse. Stravinsky, Brahms, Parry,
Debussy, Ravel, Bach, Byrd, and Hindemith -- and yet his style remained
unique. He absorbed French impressionism ("In the Fen Country,"
String Quartet No. 1) and studied for a short time with Ravel (who called
him "the only pupil who does not write my music"). But then
he came into his own with the incidental music to a production of Aristophanes'
"The Wasps," the song cycle "On Wenlock Edge," and
the classic "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis." These
works show a Vaughan Williams where his voice is unmistakably his own.
composed in almost every genre. He is one of the great setters of English
poetry, and vocal music comprises a large part of his output. Major
works include "Five Mystical Songs," "Merciless Beauty,"
"Sancta Civitas," "Serenade to Music," "Hodie,"
"10 Blake Songs," and "Dona nobis pacem." His several
operas have not become stage staples: "Hugh the Drover," "The
Poisoned Kiss," "Riders to the Sea," "Sir John in
Love," and "Pilgrim's Progress." He is one of the greatest
contributors to church music in the 20th century.
in particular, contain much variety and range, with each representing
a unique approach to the symphonic form. All have great emotional as
well as spiritual power.
1872 .. Born on October 12th at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire.
1890 .. Enters the Royal College of Music as a student.
1892 .. Enters Trinity College, Cambridge.
1897 .. Marries Adeline Fisher on 9th October. Studied with Max Bruch
1899 .. Passes Doctor of Music examination, awarded degree in May 1901.
1903 .. Start to collect folksongs in an effort to preserve them.
1904 .. Starts work editing the English Hymnal.
1905-1953 .. Conductor of the Leith Hill Musical Festival.
1906 .. The English Hymnal rev.1933.
1908 .. Studies with Maurice Ravel in Paris to "acquire some French
1910 .. "The Sea" Symphony (No.1) completed, first performance
of the Tallis Fantasia.
1914 .. Finishes "London" Symphony (No.2), outbreak of war:
enlists in Field Medical Corps.
1916 .. Posted to France and then Greece, close friend George Butterworth
killed in action.
1917 .. Commissioned as a Lieutenant, and posted back to France.
1919 .. Demobilized and appointed Professor of Composition at R.C.M
1922 .. Completes Third Symphony, "Pastoral". First visit
1925 .. Flos Campi Suite and Concerto Accademico completed.
1928 .. The Oxford Book of Carols with Percy Dearmer & Martin Shaw.
1930 .. Completes Job - A Masque for Dancing.
1933 .. First performance of Piano Concerto, many consider it his finest
work so far.
1934 .. Death of his close friend Gustav Holst.
1935 .. Finishes Symphony No.4, created Order of Merit.
1938 .. Serenade to Music composed in honour of Sir Henry Wood's jubilee.
1939 .. Outbreak of war, devotes himself to Film Music, war work, lecturing
1943 .. Finishes the acclaimed Fifth Symphony.
1944 .. Writes Oboe Concerto.
1948 .. Completes his great nihilistic Sixth Symphony.
1951 .. Wife Adeline dies on May 10th.
1952 .. Writes Romance for Harmonica after meeting Larry Adler.
1953 .. Uses parts of his film score to create Sinfonia Antarctica (No.7).
Marries Ursula Wood.
1954 .. Gives many lectures across the USA.
1956 .. Finishes Symphony No.8.
1958 .. Finishes Symphony No.9. Dies in his sleep on August 26th, from
a heart attack.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(October 12, 1872 – August 26, 1958) was an influential British
composer. He was a student at the Royal College of Music and Trinity
College, Cambridge and served as a lieutenant in World War I. He wrote
nine symphonies between 1910 and 1958 as well as numerous other works
including chamber music, opera, choral music and film scores.
Born in Down Ampney,
Gloucestershire, where his father Arthur Vaughan Williams was rector,
he was taken by his mother to live with her family at Leith Hill Place,
the Wedgwood family home in the North Downs, after his father's early
death in 1875. He was also related to the Darwins, Charles Darwin being
a great-uncle. Ralph (pronounced "rafe") was therefore born
into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, but never took
it for granted and worked tirelessly all his life for the democratic
and egalitarian ideals he believed in.
family tree, showing Vaughan Williams's relationship to Charles DarwinAfter
Charterhouse School he attended the Royal College of Music (RCM) under
Charles Villiers Stanford. He read history and music at 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 close friend. His composing 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. A big step forward in his style occurred when he
studied with Maurice Ravel in Paris.
In 1904 he discovered
English folk songs, which were fast becoming extinct owing to the increase
of literacy and printed music in rural areas. He collected many himself
and edited them. He also incorporated some into his music, being fascinated
by the beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working
lives of ordinary people.
In 1910 he had his
first big public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia
on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1), and
a greater success with A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) in 1914, conducted
by Geoffrey Toye. Although at 40, and as an ex-public schoolboy, he
could easily have avoided war service or been commissioned as an officer,
he enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps and had a gruelling
time as a stretcher bearer before being commissioned in the Royal Garrison
Artillery. On one occasion he was too ill to stand but continued to
direct his battery lying on the ground. Prolonged exposure to gunfire
began a process of loss of hearing which was eventually to cause 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 profoundly mystical style in the Pastoral Symphony
(Symphony No. 3) and Flos Campi, a work for viola solo, small orchestra,
and wordless chorus. From 1924 a new phase in his music began, characterised
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(described as "A Masque for Dancing"). This
period in his music culminated in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, first
played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935. Vaughan Williams later
made a historic recording of the work. During this period he lectured
in America and England, and conducted the Bach Choir and an annual festival
His music now entered
a mature lyrical phase, as in the Five Tudor Portraits; the "morality"
The Pilgrim's Progress; the Serenade to Music (a setting from act five
of The Merchant of Venice, for orchestra and sixteen vocal soloists);
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. Before his death in 1958 he completed four more
symphonies, including No 7 'Sinfonia Antartica' (Italian spelling),
based on his earlier film score for "Scott of the Antarctic".
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. 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).
He also wrote an arrangement of The Old One Hundreth Psalm Tune for
the Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth II.
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 everyone to make their own music, however simple, as long as
it is truly their own.
He was married twice.
His first wife, Adeline Fisher, died in 1951. In 1953 he married the
poet Ursula Wood (b. 1911), whom he had known since the late 1930s and
with whom he collaborated on a number of vocal works. Ursula later wrote
Vaughan Williams's biography "RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan
Williams", which remains the standard work on his life.
Despite being highly
involved in church music, Vaughan Williams was a professed atheist.