Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the best-known British composers of the 20th Century. He attended the Royal College of Music in London, where he formed important friendships with fellow students Gustav Holst and Leopold Stokowski. (Stokowski later introduced many of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies to American audiences.) After studying composition there with Charles Stanford and Hubert Parry, he later travelled abroad to further his technique, taking lessons with Max Bruch in Germany and finally in Paris with Maurice Ravel. (Ravel commented that Vaughan Williams was his only student with his own original style.) Along with this, Vaughan Williams was interested in and collected British folk songs, (just as Bartók did in Hungary). All of these influences had lasting effects on him and he varied his compositional style throughout his life, even while maintaining his distinctive style. His music could be patriotic, down-to-earth, or somewhat mystical, such as Flos Campi, for viola obbligato, chamber orchestra, and wordless chorus.

Vaughan Williams’ career as a composer began relatively late. He didn’t publish his first piece until the age of 30. Once he started, though, he became very prolific, writing in almost every medium. His output includes 9 symphonies, 5 operas, 5 ballets, songs, choral works, orchestral pieces, chamber music, works for wind band, and several concertos, including works for piano, violin, viola, oboe, and even a tuba concerto and romance for harmonica. He conducted several of his works himself, and was present for the recordings of all of his symphonies except the last in sessions with conductor Adrian Boult. In addition to composing 9 symphonies, he also shared another thing in common with Beethoven – deafness later in life. At the outset of World War I, Vaughan Williams enlisted in the British Army at the age of 41 and saw active duty in the trenches. The repeated noise of the artillery fire led to his eventual deafness.

Some of his more popular orchestral works include the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and the Fantasia on “Greensleeves,” (both for string orchestra) and his ballet Job, a Masque for Dancing, (based on William Blake’s illustrations for the Old Testament book). Many of his works revolve around Biblical and spiritual themes, such as the 5 Variants on “Dives and Lazarus” (from the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus), the opera Pilgrim’s Progress, (based on the book by John Bunyan), and two popular Christmas works, the cantata Hodie and his Fantasia on Christmas Carols. He was also inspired by other writers, such as Shakespeare in the Serenade to Music (inspired by The Merchant of Venice) and the opera Sir John in Love (from The Merry Wives of Windsor), as well as Irish playwright J.M. Synge, whose play Riders of the Sea was transformed by Vaughan Williams into an opera. His works, such as the English Folk Song Suite and Toccata Marziale, stand with Holst’s two suites for military band as cornerstones of the wind band repertoire.

In addition to his concert works, Vaughan Williams was the most important musician for the Anglican church in the past century. He took several folk songs and set them to hymns, arranged other popular hymn tunes, and even wrote several original hymns, such as the Sine Nomine, (“For All the Saints”). He edited the English Hymnal and the Oxford Book of Carols. He also wrote several organ preludes which are performed both liturgically and for concert audiences. One of his best-known hymn arrangements is the Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune, written for the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II and used as the tune for the Doxology.

After conducting his Fifth Symphony at the age of 70, most people in the audience assumed he was saying a farewell from the stage. However, he began a period of inspired creativity, composing four more symphonies and some of his later masterworks, such as Hodie and the Tuba Concerto. He spent many years caring for his wife, who was disabled with arthritis. After her death, he married his longtime friend, the poet Ursula Wood, who wrote the libretto for several of his late choral works, including Hodie, as well as a biography of her husband. Vaughn Williams died at the age of 85, the day before he was to supervise the recording of his 9th Symphony. He is buried at Westminster Abbey.

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Suggested Reading:

Ursula Vaughan Williams. R.V.W. A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams.