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Ralph Vaughan Williams
by Marion M Scott

Written for the Christian Science Monitor, 1920s

In the course of a conversation on British music a shrewd observer of men and events once remarked to the present writer, "It is a curious thing but whoever you are talking to, they all agree in liking Vaughan Williams. It doesn't matter whether they are classicists or revolutionaries in art, it doesn't matter whether they are professionals or amateurs, if you mention Vaughan Williams they all say "'Ah Now I admire his music.'"

The observer was right. Quietly, naturally, without any such intention or attempt on his part, Vaughan Williams has come to be a center in British music and he probably knows less than anyone how this has happened. He would, in all likelihood, stoutly deny that it had happened. But observers often see most of the game and this big, kindly, reticent Englishman as ready to be interested in other people's music, so silently modest about his own, has won a great regard from his fellow countrymen, and is looked to with trust and gratitude by the many young composers who come into touch with him. "What does Vaughan Williams say?" "What did he think of it?" are words frequently on their lips; instinctive acknowledgments of his profound sincerity and simplicity, as much as of his pre-eminent musical abilities. Tributes also to his understanding of the true nature of English music and his practice based on his truth.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (to give the full interpretation of those initials 'R.V.W.' now so familiar to English musicians) is a man of Gloucestershire, that remarkable county which, though small in mileage, has given more eminent musicians to England than any other district of the kingdom. The fierce struggles with circumstance which fall to the lot of so many composers did not come to him. Instead like Parry before him, he had a public school and university career. From 1887 to 1890 he was at Charterhouse; next came two years spent at the Royal College of Music; thence he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took the degree of Bachelor of Music in 1894 and Bachelor of Arts in 1895 and studied composition under Charles Wood and the organ under Dr Alan Gray. On leaving Cambridge he came back again to the Royal College of Music for a year. Here he worked at composition under two leaders of the British Renaissance, Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Stanford, studied the organ under Sir Walter Parratt, the leading British organist, and was a pupil of Graham Moore and Herbert Sharpe for pianoforte.

Having thus amassed knowledge from the best British sources Vaughan Williams went abroad to learn foreign points of view, and studied under Max Bruch at the Akademie fur Kunst in Berlin for a time. After this he came back to England and there followed a period of work as organist of South Lambeth church and University Extension lecturer on music. In 1901 he went to Cambridge to proceed to the degree of Doctor of Music.

Germany, at the end of the nineteenth century, was reckoned as the musical hub of the world, with Russia as an outer circle. But in the early years of the present century recognition of the French school, of the aims of Debussy and Ravel dawned upon England. Vaughan Williams was quick to see the value of these new ways of saying things in music. He was also dissatisfied with his own technical proficiency. He is one of those composers with powerful ideas to express has, like Beethoven, found great difficulty in forging a technique flexible enough for their expression. So in 1908 he went to Paris to investigate the new methods at firsthand. It has often been said that he studied under Ravel - probably a more exact description of the situation is to say that Vaughan Williams studied Ravel. During the years that followed Vaughan Williams' history is mainly that of his compositions.

At the time the war broke out he was already beyond the original age limit for the British Army. But he immediately turned to public work helpful to the country. In conjunction with Dr Walford Davies, Mr W.W. Cobbett, Mr H.C. Colles and others, he initiated the Committee for Music in War Time, which subsequently amalgamated with the Professional Classes War Relief Committee and did such invaluable work in assisting professional musicians in distressed circumstances at that time. Then, after a few months, he quietly followed Walt Whitman's example and joined the army as a private in the RAMC. Later on he transferred to the combatant branch holding a commission as lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He remained in the army to the end of the war, served both in France and Salonica and, on demobilisation, returned to his civilian avocations as quietly and unostentatiously as he had given them up.

Not long afterwards Vaughan Williams was appointed to the staff of the Royal College of Music as a professor of composition, a most admirable appointment, in which he has shown the gifts of a fine teacher as well as those of a great composer of music. He has also conducted the Handel Society, and on the retirement of Sir Hugh Allen from the London Bach Choir, Dr Vaughan Williams was appointed to succeed him as conductor and has just taken up his duties there.

Even a sketch as brief as that just given serves to show that Vaughan Williams has wide experience, and wide sympathies to bring to his own music, but on turning to study this music itself one becomes aware of other very important elements which have contributed to give his work its real English characteristics without weakening its broad human appeal. These are his love and knowledge of British folk songs, of the great choral music of the Elizabethan period; and of the scores of Henry Purcell. Long ago Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst (his former fellow student and intimate friend) realised the value of these springs of music flowing from the past to irrigate the present and by example and advocacy they have both been powerful factors in bringing these vivifying elements within the scope of music today.

The story of his final conversion to folk song is bound to come up with the discovery of one of the most exquisite tunes in the folk music of the world. Vaughan Williams himself tells it thus: "I was at that time entirely without firsthand evidence on the subject. I knew and loved the few English folk songs which were then available in printed collections, but I only believed in them vaguely ... my faith was not yet active. I was invited to a party given to people of a village in Essex, only 20 miles from London. We asked if any of them knew any of the old songs, whereupon an old man, a shepherd, began to sing a song which set all my doubts about folk song at rest. The song which he sang was 'Bushes and Briars'." While on this subject it may be mentioned that Vaughan Williams has since done some very valuable collecting in the eastern counties, among his finds being the rattling good tunes, 'On board a ninety-eight', the latter a fine specimen of the Dorian mode treated in its bluff aspect.

Nearly every person who has written about Vaughan Williams has commented on the difficulty of cataloguing his compositions. The writers experience the same bewilderment that befell 'Alice' in Lewis Carroll's famous book when the croquet hoops got up and walked away. The fact is Vaughan Williams evolves, rather than writes his things. He may think of them for years and when he puts the notes on paper he writes, rewrites, molds, remolds, lengthens, prunes, alters and again alters till it is next to impossible to date them and though to other people they appear complete, it is doubtful whether he ever regards the form of any work as final. Never was a critic harder to satisfy. Also he has a habit of withdrawing works altogether which - though once he may have liked them - now fail to satisfy him. Quite a number have vanished thus, consigned to oblivion as if under a lettre de cachet.

Happily a good number of his compositions are now published, and so cannot be reft away. They cover a wide range - choral, orchestral, chamber and solo. One of the largest is the superb "Sea Symphony" produced at the Leeds Festival of 1910; one of the shortest is that wonderful hymn tune called "Sine Nomine" which appeared anonymously some years ago and arrested everyone by its beauty. Gradually the secret of its authorship leaked out, and among musicians it is now usually referred to simply as 'Vaughan Williams' tune.'

In one of Romain Rolland's books there is a passage on the strange prophetic power which at times flames up in art. He says "Very often, thanks to its depth and spontaneity music is the first indication of tendencies which later translate themselves into work; and afterwards into deeds. The Eroica Symphony anticipated by more than ten years the awakening of the German nation." Vaughan Williams' greatest works possess this mysterious illumination. His "Sea Symphony" and the "London" Symphony, both written before the war, did not become fully comprehensible until those years of concentrated heroism, tremendous forces and profound emotions were in progress.

So much was this the case that when in 1916 a great concert was given with the Bach Choir to commemorate the heroic deeds of the men of the British Navy, and the "Sea Symphony" was performed, people exclaimed "Why if he had written it purposely for this occasion he couldn't have couldn't have done anything more suitable." But like Beethoven foreshadowing Napoleon at St Helens, he had "already composed music for this event."

Some of the events in the career of Ralph Vaughan Williams have already been indicated in a previous article. It remains here to give an outline of his work and characteristics, though his works are (happily) too numerous to admit of mentioning all by name in the space at disposal. In many ways he is the most typically English composer of the present day, and, interestingly enough, this is recognised not only in other countries but in England. For his music often utters the things they feel. It has that peculiar blending of beauty with bluntness, idealism with common sense, aristocratic culture with instinctive democracy which distinguishes the best British types. Even his difficulties are temperamentally English, as, for instance, an inability to turn brilliant musical phrases over things that are surely the small change of the minute, or his tendency towards over-strong structures and resultant struggle to attain flexibility of expression.

His technical methods would form an interesting study. Modal progressions and the melodic lines of English folk song have been absorbed by him till they color much of his work; his command of choral writing is wide and natural, seeming to come to him in much the same way that English and Scottish sailors get their sense of the sea. His command of instrumental color is perhaps more of an acquired than a spontaneous power, but he can hold his own in orchestration against the modern colorists, and gets the effects that best suit the trend of his ideas. He has no hesitation in employing any method, old or modern, which will help him express his thoughts sincerely. Yet where, for instance, composers of today often dash in strings of consecutive fifths and such things just to show their jaunty independence of classical traditions, Vaughan Williams employs fifths in a sincere, single-hearted manner. The more one studies his works, the more one is struck by the blending of opposites in his character.

As regards choral music, "The Sea Symphony" is Vaughan Williams' finest work up to the present. There are, however, many other works of his in this medium, which, varying in caliber and contents, are worthy attentive consideration. The Elizabethan part songs are early things, but excellent. "Willow-Wood", a cantata for baritone solo, female voices and orchestra, dating from 1903, is rich in thought and feeling, but does not always "get through" to the audience as it should, owing to the somewhat stiff technique. "Toward the Unknown Region" (1906), for chorus and orchestra, words by Walt Whitman, shows an enormous stride forward. It shares the lofty ideals and powerful expression of the "Sea Symphony" and, though not so large, is nevertheless a more important contribution to British music.

In the beautiful "Five Mystical Songs" for baritone, chorus and orchestra, the "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" and the "Four Hymns" for tenor voice and string orchestra, Vaughan Williams reveals the devotional and remote side of his genius. The splendid anthems "O Praise the Lord of Heaven" and "O Clap Your Hands", are designed for great bodies of voices, are spacious in character, and (like many other of Vaughan Williams' works) shows his fondness for modal harmony. Then there are part songs of several kinds and numerous arrangements of folk songs, including the fine "Five Folk Songs" for unaccompanied chorus. Mention must also be made of his unfinished ballad opera "Hugh the Drover".

The "London Symphony", published by the Carnegie Trustees, is not only one of the most important of Vaughan Williams' works - it is also one of the most important contributions to symphonic literature since Brahms. First played at concerts given by F. B. Ellis in 1914 for the furtherance of British music. It subsequently lay in abeyance until Adrian Boult produced it at his concerts in February, 1918. Musicians grasped the value of the work, and ever since then it has been coming into its own. It has been heard several times in London and elsewhere with ever-growing appreciation, and the latest news is of its making a most successful debut in Australia.

The orchestral things by Vaughan Williams are "The Lark Ascending", for violin and orchestra (composed for Marie Hall), the incidental music to "The Wasps" of Aristophanes, the fantasia for string orchestra on a theme by Tallis, a heroic elegy, two orchestral impressions, "Harnham Down" and "Bolderewood", a symphonic impression "In the Fen Country", and the "Norfolk Rhapsodies". A new work of his is to be produced by the Royal Philharmonic Society this winter.

His best known chamber work and indeed the work by which he is best known all over the world is the "Wenlock Edge" song cycle for tenor voice, string quartet and pianoforte. The words are taken from Housman's "Shropshire Lad" and the music, written about 1909, is of the sort which increases its effect on familiarity. Verbal descriptions give but a small idea of its wealth of imagination and bleak truth.

Of purely instrumental chamber music Vaughan Williams has written a fair amount, but next to none is now available. For instance, there was a string quartet which was played at a Dunhill chamber concert at Steinway Hall, and provoked the liveliest discussion by its modern progressions. As far as the present writer is concerned (who then heard it) can recall, the work was interesting on account of its harmonic color, which was like the evershifting gray-green tone of a stream at twilight, but lacked any definite point of arrival. Also the writing took singularly little account of the possibilities of string tone and like a good deal of modern French music made a string quartet sound a most slender combination of instruments.

But Vaughan Williams was getting his experience and this came to flower in the beautiful phantasy quintet for two violins, two violas and cello, dating from 1915, dedicated to Mr W.W. Cobbett and the members of the London String Quartet and published this year. The quintet was written in response to a commission from Mr Cobbett for a work for his Library of British Chamber Music, and music lovers owe him and the composer much gratitude for having given a fine composition to the world.

Pianoforte solos are not usually classed with chamber music. But Vaughan Williams has written so little for the solo pianist, and the one "Suite of Six Short Pieces" he has done is so delightful of its kind that it must be mentioned here, It is that rare thing, music simple enough to be within the reach of children and all people of small technical proficiency, yet so interesting, so luminous with refined beauty, that the greatest professionals can rejoice in playing it.

Vaughan Williams' songs spring up at all points in his career and dot the list of his works in all parts, but they were more numerous in the earlier years. It was in the medium of song that he first found himself or rather managed to crystallise his ideas into an enduring form. These songs are too numerous to deal with here in detail - besides, it is so much better to sing them! - but a few may be mentioned. "Blackmore" and "Linden Lea" are settings of William Barnes' Dorset dialect poems, and have a fascinating lilt on which they swing into favor at once. The big cycle for baritone and piano called "The House of Life", six sonnets by Rossetti, is strongly impressive. The "Songs of Travel", of which there are two sets, are an honor to English music. These vigorous open air things might well be described by a line from "The Roadside Fire" itself, the third song of the first set. Each is "the fine song for singing, the rare song to hear."

Nor does the simile end here. In all Vaughan Williams' career there is this sense of travel. The thoughts of it emerge again and again. Vaughan Williams has already traveled far himself; he shows no sign of settling down to rest content with what he has done.

Marion M Scott

This article appears here with the kind permission of Pamela Blevins

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