Ralph Vaughn Williams
Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005

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I don't know whether I like it, but it is what I meant.

"No, it's a Bb. It looks wrong and it sounds wrong, but it's right."

But in the next world I shan't be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it."


Composer, conductor, 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 century.
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 Abbey.

Vaughan Williams 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 language.
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.

Vaughan Williams 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.

The symphonies, 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 in Berlin.
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 Polish."
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 in Oxford.
1922 .. Completes Third Symphony, "Pastoral". First visit to America.
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 and writing.
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.

The Darwin-Wedgwood-Galton 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 at Dorking.

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.

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 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.


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