By MARION M SCOTT
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Specially 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
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