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Ralph Vaughan Williams
by Em Marshall-Luck

Ask any person in the street what they know of Ralph Vaughan Williams's music and the likelihood is that their answer will include one of Greensleeves, The Lark Ascending or Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. If you happened to have picked a churchgoer, they might remember singing the odd RVW hymn-tune (Down Ampney or Sine Nomine, perhaps) once in a while. A slightly more adventurous listener would be aware of the Fifth Symphony and a film enthusiast would probably think of him as the man who wrote the score for Scott of the Antarctic. Put all these 'average' views together and you get the impression that our man wrote pretty tunes that conjure up the English countryside or remind you of singing evensong, with an excursion into film music as an occasional jeu d'esprit.

This view could hardly be more misleading. Vaughan Williams did enjoy cream buns (who doesn't?) and was prone to wearing ill-fitting tweed (someone once famously remarked of him that "Vaughan Williams looks like a farmer' on his way to judge the shorthorns at an agricultural fair"!). However the 'Classic FM' perception of both the man and his music suggested by the straw-poll I have just imagined does him a grave disservice and does not even hint at the great extent of his importance to English music. Nor, more importantly, does it make much of a case for Vaughan Williams as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. Had his name been Rodolphus Van Wilhelms, the general perception of his work might be very different but, at the moment, the quality and nature of much of his music still tends to be overlooked on account of his lazily-assumed Englishness. All of which is both unfair and rather odd, given that his rhythmic chutzpah rivals much of Stravinsky and Bartók, his ear for orchestral colour that of Mahler and his dexterity in manipulating tonality anything to be found in Debussy and Ravel. To all of this might be added that he was still merrily experimenting away well into his eighties (delighting in the Eighth Symphony, for instance, in "all the 'spiels and 'phones known to the composer!"), the stage of life by which most composers are usually coming in for criticism along the lines of 'tales twice told.'

If you were to play one of the listeners imagined above the beginning of either the Fourth or the Sixth Symphony, they would be astonished at what they heard. Here, after all, are two works that were for years thought to be, respectively, the prophecy of war and the anticipation of nuclear meltdown. The Fourth can surely justify the title of the 'most astonishing inter-war symphony', and what Vaughan Williams provides is music of the utmost violence and anger, commencing with snarling brass dissonances and not letting go of the listener for the entire duration of the piece. Although there are moments of stillness and beauty in the Fourth Symphony, they never distract entirely from the maelstrom surrounding them, and the final fortissimo F minor chord punched out by the entire orchestra will blow away any normal listener or audience today ' and this despite ears being familiar with the Rite of Spring, Schoenberg and Boulez! Vaughan Williams himself said of this astonishing work that "I don't know if I like it, but it's what I meant," the full extent of which can be heard on a famously brutal recording of the work - its first - that the composer conducted in 1937.

What exactly Vaughan Williams 'meant' by his music is a question - perhaps the question - crucial to an understanding of how his music is of universal, rather than exclusively English, importance. The Fourth Symphony is a case in point; VW himself never intended the work (written around 1931-34) to have any connotation with the onset of war and he was moved to remark that "it never seems to occur to anyone that a man might simply want to write a piece of music." In fact, recent research has suggested that the F minor symphony might actually have been VW's own attempt to write a symphony along similar structural lines to Beethoven's Fifth. At any rate, the work was not meant to be some prophecy of doom, and VW was always greatly amused to be held up as a sage or clairvoyant!

A better example still of the way in which Vaughan Williams's music has been prone to hijacking is that of A Pastoral Symphony (No. 3). For years, it was assumed that this was VW in 'misty morning in the lanes' mood, with noble evocations of All Things English, embodied by those eloquent-sounding trumpet and horn solos in the second movement. Suggest that the country depicted might be France, however, and a very different, much more powerful picture emerges. A Pastoral Symphony, as the composer later pointed out, has got nothing to do with "lambkins frisking about;" but it has everything to do with the shell-torn landscape of the Western Front, where VW was on active service as an ambulance man. Insofar as it does evoke a landscape, there are plenty of half-tints and mists about this portrayal (part of which came to Vaughan Williams during the sunrises he witnessed) but, rather than being the kind of scene that Constable might have painted, what VW gives us is a musical version of Corot. Ultimately, as Michael Kennedy points out in his seminal book The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (OUP), this is his War Requiem and, as such, has a far more significant message than was often thought.

Vaughan Williams's most famous symphony, the Fifth, demonstrates another way in which his music has tended to be under-rated. If you are a regular reader of concert and CD reviews, you will probably notice that critics tend to have very set ideas on the approach required for British music and are generally dismissive about attempts to try anything a bit different ("it was a misguided but noble idea to attempt follow Elgar's metronome marking, quite outside the tradition of..."). How peculiar, then, that it's perfectly acceptable to play Beethoven with vibrato, without vibrato, with 60+ strings, with 30 strings, with period instruments and so on. What this rather implies is that non-British music seems to be credited with a greater ability to take a range of approaches. In the case of Elgar, this is partly justifiable; if it doesn't have that warm, burnished string tone and rock-solid brass, it just isn't right (although you could say the same for many late-Romantic composers - look at Rachmaninov, for example). What, then, of Vaughan Williams? It is interesting to note that, especially in recent years (as a result of efforts by conductors such as Haitink, Vänskä, Norrington and Ashkenazy, the latter with the Czech Philharmonic), performances of VW symphonies have been popping up all over Europe. This clearly suggests that the music has huge appeal and, interestingly, it is what British audiences would think of as the more gnarly works that have been played (especially the Sixth Symphony).

The Fifth Symphony's outings on record provide a very useful insight into just how great a range of different, purely musical approaches the work can take. In the main, there are two methods which say something useful about the piece; on the one hand, it can be played in as passionate and warm a manner as possible, with glowing brass, singing strings and huge rubato at climaxes (the best example of which is probably Barbirolli's 1962 Philharmonia recording). On the other hand, it can be played as straight as possible with little vibrato and a Ravelian restraint (exemplified by LPO/Norrington on Decca - one of the best re-thinkings of recent years). The same might be said of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis - again, Barbirolli epitomises the 'from-the-heart' approach, while Boult chooses to tap in to the mystery and delicacy of the work (think of light coming through a window into a dingy room), both to devastating but quite different effect.

So far, I have concentrated on the symphonies, which in themselves are enough to mark Vaughan Williams out as an incontestably great composer. Although the Sea Symphony (No. 1) is generally a weaker work, it contains much glorious music, as does the popular London Symphony (No. 2). If anyone ever doubted VW's ability to think like a great composer, they need only compare the original version of this work, recently recorded by Hickox on Chandos, with the standard revised version. Although the original contains extra passages of appreciable beauty, the revision is a much tauter, better balanced work that makes its point far more intensely. The later symphonies are less often played but, in every case, VW manages not only to produce something wholly different to its predecessor in the cycle, but also music that, whatever its style, has a direct emotional appeal.

What of the rest of his output? Vaughan Williams was enormously prolific. Apart from the nine symphonies, he produced five operas (or rather, four plus a 'Morality,' The Pilgrim's Progress), a number of concertos including a rare example for bass tuba, chamber music, choral works both accompanied and a capella, and a great many songs. In every genre, he produced at least one masterpiece (although some might quibble about the suitability of The Pilgrim's Progress for the stage, the performances of the work in Cambridge in the 1950s showed what was possible with the help of sympathetic direction). It is difficult to suggest where to dip in since so much of the music is wholly characteristic of the composer, but pieces well worth starting with include the Mass in G minor, Sancta Civitas, the Phantasy Quintet, On Wenlock Edge, the Dona Nobis Pacem and An Oxford Elegy.

As if this were not enough, Vaughan Williams also has a very strong claim to being the single most significant musical figure that England has ever produced (with due respect to Purcell, Elgar and Britten). He himself could be said to have had a healthy mix of both the British and the continental in his musical education. He studied under two of the musical "greats" of their time in London ' Parry and Stanford at the Royal College of Music, as well as with Charles Wood at Trinity College, Cambridge. Abroad, he was taught by Ravel (in Paris) and Bruch (in Berlin). His own music, however, stands firmly rooted in all that is best in truly British music ' indeed, Ravel is said to have called him "my only pupil who does not write my music". Although, (despite the greatness of works by Parry and Stanford) Elgar is rightly credited with demonstrating for the first time since Purcell that English composers were capable of producing masterpieces, much of his work follows Germanic models (albeit refracted through Elgar's own unique lens).

Vaughan Williams however was responsible for re-examining England's musical heritage and making use of what he found to forge a new, independent and entirely English method of composition, fusing elements of modal harmony, Tudor polyphony and folksong, all of which shine through in lilting, singing melodies and dancing rhythms in a great deal of his output. The work done by VW, his great friend Holst and Cecil Sharp in collecting folksongs from all over the country was an act of cultural retrieval of the utmost significance, since it preserved a large part of a national heritage that has now almost entirely vanished (much like the work done by Bartók for folksongs in Hungary). Thus, it is from the rise to prominence of Vaughan Williams, not Elgar, that a genuine English musical renaissance can be traced. VW's cultural preservation work also extended to editing a number of hymnals, projects which involved collecting traditional tunes, composing some himself and commissioning new ones from contemporary composers. Today, these provide the backbone of the music used by the Church of England.

It says much for Vaughan Williams's breadth of mind that he was able to write works which, based on folk tunes, have a simplicity and directness of appeal that make them instantly popular but that, as well as this, his more 'serious' vein still carries tremendous emotional clout. Perhaps the final proof of his greatness, though, lies in his towering humanity. As the discussion of A Pastoral Symphony above suggests, VW was acutely responsive to the world around him and, in such ways as he was able, he made practical efforts to help (including assisting younger composers financially). One story recounted by RVW's widow, Ursula, exemplifies perfectly his sweet-natured, compassionate, humorous and wholly congenial character ' in the 1930s he helped out with housing German refugees, even lodging some of them at his own home. A representative of the refugees once complained bitterly that the houses they were staying in were cold and damp, whereas back in Germany most people had had central heating. VW cut through the other Brit's explosions at the man's ingratitude to comment "Isn't it wonderful that he can remember the good things in Germany!"

The sheer range of sympathies evinced by Vaughan Williams' work shows the many facets to his character. Whether in the riotous jollity of Hodie (his Christmas Cantata), the simplicity of the folksongs, the anger of the Fourth Symphony or the Prospero-like acceptance of the world's intransigence in the finale of the Sixth Symphony, there is never any doubt of the sincerity of expression.

Instead of thinking of Vaughan Williams as the Englishman who wrote The Lark Ascending, then, it is fairer to both the man and the musician to accept him as one of the truly outstanding composers of his or any age. One who had all the techniques one could wish for; who could experiment with the best of them; who rejuvenated a nation's musical life; who preserved its musical heritage; and who remained modest and unassuming throughout. This, of course, was part of his greatness.

If you would be interested in finding out more about the life and music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, a good way to meet like-minded people would be to join the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, one of the largest and most active composer societies in the UK. The Society's aims include the promotion of performances of music by both RVW and those connected with him, subsidising recordings and organising events to examine aspects of his music. The Society also publishes a journal three times a year.

Em Marshall-Luck

Managing and Artistic Director, The English Music Festival (

The above article first appeared in the FRMS Bulletin


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