RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS O.M – (Knighthood Declined) (1872-1958)
Ralph (pronounced Raif) Vaughan Williams (RVW) is a completely different barrel of English cider than the other composers I have written about. All composers are different but some have traits in common; others are just more different. Everything is different about him apart from his musical training which was bog standard orthodox. Yet here is a composer who is regarded as quintessentially rustic English. Little wonder for someone born in a Gloucestershire village called Down Ampney. His father, Arthur, was the rector; his mother, Margaret, a suitable subject for TV’s “Who do You Think You Are?”, was an offspring from two famous families, the Wedgwoods and the Darwins, who had frequently previously intermarried. She was a direct descendant of Josiah Wedgwood whilst Charles Darwin was a great uncle who frequently visited.
If during the course of musical succession the relay baton got handed down from Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven, Brahms through to Dvorak and was about to be taken up by Elgar, this did not apply to RVW. At the end of the nineteenth century musical nationalism was sweeping through Europe, intermingling folk dances with classical structures. Others were content to write their trepaks and mazurkas, their polkas, Slavonic Dances and Hungarian Rhapsodies, their Ma Vlasts and Patries, and all at a time when England was being bashed as “Das Land Ohne Musik” with no sign of any emergent English national movement. And RVW assumed this mantle by quite different albeit artificial means. After Charterhouse he had studied at the Royal College of Music under Parry absorbing the English choral tradition and Beethoven quartets; he had gone up to Cambridge to read history and music whilst continuing weekly studies under Parry; after graduating he returned to the College where he studied under another giant pillar of Victorian establishment, Stanford. During this second period he met fellow student, Gustav Holst with whom he would always remain close. The two of them developed an interest in the English folksong, travelling the country and recording down on paper old songs that had been passed down, much as Kodaly and Bartok would do in Hungary. The English folk song and its particular musical modes would interest and absorb RVW for the rest of his life.
In 1897 he married Adeline Fisher, a talented cellist and pianist and cousin of Virginia Woolf, but they never would have any children. She suffered from arthritis and their relationship was at times strained. He briefly studied with Max Bruch in Berlin. His first appointment was no great shakes, organist at St. Barnabas Church in Lambeth. However this turned out to be greatly influential upon his later output as RVW was commissioned to edit and rewrite the English Hymnal. What is more surprising is that RVW was all his life a firm committed atheist but not only did he write the new hymnal but added four new hymns of his own as well as a number of religious works, not just masses but also what he described as mystic works. Throughout his creative life his works and style would be inseminated with religious forms or folk song or ancient modes in which he clothed much of his output so as to affect a kind of olde Englishe dialect.
It was in writing the English hymnal that he came to study hymns ancient. I do not subscribe to there being hymns modern but RVW was much absorbed with Tudor writing, particularly Thomas Tallis, and again the modes of the times well before the adoption of tonic sol fa. Now don’t get worried. I am not going technical upon you but put in simple terms each mode is the way a scale has its notes separated from each other. We have all learned Do-Re-Mi which is what is called the major scale. There is also the minor scale which is correctly the Aeolian mode. But there have been other modes used in olden times where the distance between notes is positioned differently. To name a few, there are Lydian, Phrygian and pentatonic . There are more modern modes like the Blues mode. There is also a bebop mode which RVW didn’t adopt.. Now it was one thing for RVW to reproduce music written four centuries earlier in some mediaeval mode, like Greensleeves. He would go on to adapt such modes into his own compositions which would create an impression of perceived old England whether it be period sound or clodhopping rustic or again to evoke a particular musical landscape, a sort of Constable in sound. Was it English or phoney Englishness? Now a listener of Mussorgsky’s time would recognize a Russian folk song in Boris Godunov and might even sing it. RVW’s folk songs were simply curiosities but not part of the musical DNA of Joe Public. In the early 1900’s their taste in Tudor music would have been “I’m Henry the Eighth, I am, I am”, sung at the Kings Head or the local Palace of Varieties down the Old Kent Road.
Moving into the first decade of the twentieth century RVW was becoming a musical master chef. A folk tune here coupled with a hymn there, a touch of the Old Hundreth or a modal sprinkle of Thomas Tallis. Blend it all together and you have Vaughan Williams on your platter. One of his earliest works was in 1909 when he was engaged to write incidental music for the annual Greek play at Cambridge, in this case “The Wasps” by Aristophanes. Wasps was the name given to those Athenian citizens who queued up to volunteer to be jurors and give someone a sting. The music is best known for its overture and suite. What immediately strikes home is that though it is an Aristophanic comedy the music is not exactly up the Parthenon, more like like Stow on the Wold. By now RVW had completed a long apprenticeship. Perhaps he thought his music was becoming too narrowly English and that he needed to learn something of what was going on across the Manche. So late in 1907 he decided to go to Paris to take lessons from Ravel who was actually three years his junior. This turned out to be particularly fruitful, with RVW learning “to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines”. He returned a few months later to write his very English song cycle “On Wenlock Edge”, to poems by A.E. Housman but Ravel’s brand of impressionism would be found in RVW’s later London Symphony of 1913.
RVW’s researches had led him to an earlier rich vein of Elizabethan music, hitherto unknown, to which he could leapfrog back over the classical and baroque periods and from which he derived his inspiration. In 1906 RVW had included in his English hymnal a psalm by Tallis for Archbishop Parker’s hymnal of 1567. Now in 1910 RVW took up the Elizabethan name of ‘Fantasy’ using the Tallis in its Phrygian mode as the theme. It is not just written for a string orchestra but for a double string orchestra, one larger, the other consisting of nine players set apart from the first, and including also a string quartet. RVW configured it so as to resemble the sound of an organ with the first orchestra the great choir and the second the small choir. The spacing between them emphasises the stereophonic effect in the way that the small orchestra echoes the large. This is a true masterwork, a tapestry of Elizabethan sound with the music moving seamlessly from one section to another. RVW was an early music neo-classical but no-one would have used that term. It was of course later used in the 1920’s by Stravinsky and his followers. They dressed up old masters in new clothes with added lipstick and make up in order to create a novelty in their own image. The Tallis Fantasia is neo-Elizabethan written more in homage to the original. RVW had anticipated his more fashionable successors in reaching across the intervening centuries. The one comparable work which does come to mind is Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings written in 1905 also with string quartet. The combination is similar but the Elgar has its roots in the 19th century and, pleasant as it is, it does not have the intensity and spirituality of the Tallis Fantasia.
RVW was well into his thirties by the time he got going. His first main body of works was effectively from 1906 till the Great War. I do not propose to go through each one but it is worth perhaps looking at his life viewed from alongside his cycle of nine symphonies, a fateful number alongside those of Beethoven, Schubert (except he had a missing seventh), Bruckner, Mahler and Dvorak . Writing a symphony was perhaps a natural aim of any young man seeking to emulate the feats of the nineteenth century colossi. As early as 1903 RVW was working on a large scale choral symphony in four movements à la Beethoven, to become the Sea Symphony. It was finished in 1910, lasts 70 minutes and unlike the Beethoven the chorus is at work from the start. He had discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman for his texts and to whom he would later return. It was a great success. The second symphony was called “A London Symphony” or, as RVW put it, a symphony by a Londoner. It has a prelude and a postlude each containing the Big Ben chimes on the harp. Its original version was very long and later given a haircut. It depicts the sounds of Edwardian London, the chirpy cockney, the flower girl in Piccadilly selling violets, a nocturne-scherzo with orchestral imitations of mouth organs and accordions in a Cockney pub followed by a majestic finale, a tad pomp and circumstance. The original score got lost in Berlin after a performance there just before the balloon went up and RVW had to rewrite it from memory after the war ended. The suggestion for the symphony came from his friend and fellow composer, George Butterworth whose own music conjures up much the same rural landscapes as that of RVW. The other well known work from this time, is The Lark Ascending, top of the charts on Classic FM, originally written for violin and piano and orchestrated in 1920, It is not a concerto but could have made the most wonderful rhapsodic slow movement of a violin concerto. Like the London Symphony it is impressionist in a very English way. For many it symbolizes the lost world of Innocence of the pre-war years except that this is a myth that belies the very turbulent period leading up to the First World War.
On New Year’s Eve 1914 RVW who was living in Chelsea enlisted at Duke of York’s Barracks as a private in an ambulance unit. Enlistment at that time was voluntary and he only was doing what thousands of others were all doing notwithstanding he was 42 and had flat feet. He conducted a military band till 1916 when he was posted to the Western Front. 1916 saw the first battle of the Somme in which his friend George Butterworth died in surrounds which in no way could be likened to the banks of green willow. One feels Butterworth would, had he lived, have been a twin figure of equal stature to RVW. One might imagine RVW driving around in a white ambulance with a red cross. Surprisingly the army may not have mastered military strategy but it knew its Latin and the verb “ambulo-ambulare” which means to walk. RVW’s duties included walking the trenches where he attended the wounded on the spot. In short he was in the front line in appalling conditions. I find a striking similarity between RVW and the artist Stanley Spencer. Both were products of rural England; both influenced by religious subjects and both were members of ambulance units in the war. Spencer managed to depict this in his contemporary painting whilst RVW stored up his ideas but his composition was on hold. He resumed his activities once demobbed including finishing his opera “Hugh The Drover” and resuming his activities with the Leith Hill Festival which he had founded in 1905. In 1922 he wrote his Pastoral Symphony (No 3). For many it was typical rustic VW, a work without climaxes, as flat as a steamy fresh cow pat or as Peter Warlock famously said of it “too much like a cow looking over a gate”. The criticism was of its particular English grey landscape. However it was not an English landscape that RVW had in mind. The Pastoral Symphony was an aspect of the war. He wrote “It’s really wartime music — a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset – it’s not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted.” So, Corot, not Constable. The initial inspiration came after RVW heard a bugler playing a wrong note which RVW reproduced in the second movement of his symphony..
In 1930 RVW was asked to write a ballet for the newly launched Camargo Society whose musical director was his brilliant former pupil, Constant Lambert. The ballet was straight away different from all others. First of all, RVW did not call it a ballet. He was in his sixteenth century mode and called it a “Masque for Dancing”. There would be no dancing “sur les points”. The subject matter was biblical, “Job”, and it is of symphonic proportions, what might be called a a “Jobsworth”. Something was clearly happening to RVW and the answer exploded forth in 1934 with his fourth symphony. Early in that year Elgar, Holst and Delius had died within three months of each other. There appeared no natural successor although Arnold Bax attempted to claim the crown. At that time RVW was seen as a respectable composer of what Matthew Taylor would describe as the second division, known and respected but much in the same league as say George Dyson or Herbert Howells – for them I’d say 3rd Divison. And there he would have stayed if his fourth symphony had not appeared. It is notorious for an opening double discord which immediately says that RVW is a modernist after all and not everything comes out of The Woodes So Gaye or stems from the Morris Dance. This is as violent an opening as you will hear. RVW famously said “I don’t know if I like it but I meant it”. Commentators have attributed all manner of explanations including the depression and the rise of Hitler. This only made RVW even more mad when he commented “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.” Suddenly the sixty year plus old RVW, composer of Greensleeves and Old King Cole, was being projected as England’s Number One symphonist, but not for long. William Walton had laboriously written three movements of his symphony and with its completion the following year a new leader was crowned.
If anything the anger expressed in the fourth symphony was not from Herr Hitler but from the home front. His wife Adeline was getting worse and because of her arthritis confined to a wheel chair. She wanted to leave London where RVW was happily living and move back to Dorking. It has been suggested that his anger stemmed from the strains taking place. RVW’s fourth symphony contrasts remarkably with his cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem” written in 1936. Its title is religious; its content is based on poems written again by Walt Whitman especially the two veteran soldiers from the American Civil War; it is played regularly in concerts of Amnesty International. The first performance of “Five Tudor Portraits” took place also in 1936 at the Norwich Triennial Festival. It also saw the first performance of “Our Hunting Fathers” by the 22 year old Benjamin Britten. The orchestra was particularly mocking in respect of the latter. RVW told them in no uncertain words that they were “in the presence of greatness” and that if they did not want to play Britten’s work they would not play his. Peace and tranquillity were to return in RVW’s beautiful Serenade to Music specially written as a golden jubilee present for the conductor, Sir Henry Wood, in 1938 written for him and sixteen of his favourite singers as soloists.
At about this time a young aspiring actress from the Old Vic who had taken part in a production of Job, Ursula Wood, already married to a gunnery officer, took a shy to RVW and asked to meet him. She was 27; he was 66. According to her he took her to dinner and grabbed hold of her in the back of the taxi and kissed her passionately. There was clearly going to be more of where that came from. She was soon referred to euphemistically as his secretary. Moreover it was an open relationship if not talked about with his wife whom he clearly was not going to leave. In 1944 towards the end of the war Ursula was staying with the VW’s at Dorking when the threat from enemy V1’s (doodle bugs) was at its height. Ursula could not get back to London and stayed the night. It has been described as a ménage à trois although in fact RVW slept in his bed, Adeline slept in hers and Ursula occupied the floor space between. That’s hardly erotic in my book. What is more important about Ursula is that a degree of calm seems to have resulted in RVW’s music. This is particularly so in his fifth symphony which appeared in 1942. He had been writing an opera, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, after Bunyan, over a period of twenty years and used much of the music intended for that in the symphony. Whilst the fourth was vitriolic the fifth, written in the middle of the war years, was a paragon of peace and tranquillity. It harps back to the Pastoral but one senses a spirituality and calm which, having regard to the bleakness of the time, came as just a shock considering that only a further cluster of high explosives could be expected.
High explosive there was however with the advent of the sixth symphony in 1946 – said by some, but not by RVW, to be his reaction to Hiroshima. For RVW the end of the war did was not about you do the hoky coky and you turn around. Its opening is the same VW who wrote Job and the fourth symphony. The second movement contains an insistent repetitive tattoo of three taps on the side drum, a warning of disaster which eventually gets thundered out by the whole orchestra – a reminder here of Mars from Holst’s Planet Suite. Some, because of the side drum, see a likeness to Nielsen’s fifth symphony; others because of its repetition liken it to Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony. Just to compare RVW to those two was to suggest he had moved to another planet. The most incredible movement is the last. It is an evocation of space without development or shape. Its co-sanguinity is again Holst, this time Neptune. RVW admitted to that when interviewed. This symphony contains no finale, just a disappearance into a black hole.
Now RVW was well into his seventies and the grand old man of English music. Following the sixth symphony he wrote the music for the film Scott of the Antarctic which came out in 1948. The film was about heroism, shooting the mules, broken down snow tractors, brave intrepid Englishmen man-hauling their equipment and never countenancing the use of dogs – so unEnglish – and of course the most valiant of persons after Scott himself, John Mills. I loved it and RVW wrote the music. Moreover the music was too good not to be re-used, much like Prokofiev with his opera the Prodigal Son. The ideas were recycled to make his Symphony No 7, the Sinfonia Antarctica with full orchestra, a wordless soprano and a wind machine. But I have always encountered one difficulty. When I hear the music my inner eye sees the cold wastes of the Beardmore Glacier. Yet, when I see the film which appears almost as regularly on TV as Midsummer Murders my attention gets diverted from the events on the screen on hearing the somewhat faded sounds of Vaughan-Williams Sinfornia Antarctica in the background.
In 1951 Adeline Vaughan Williams died. Ursula Wood and RVW’s relationship had continued. Her husband had died of a heart attack in 1942. RVW had remained married, if not conventionally loyal, to Adelina who was fully aware of what was going on. He was now over eighty. RVW and Ursula married in February 1953 to the shock of the press.. One presumes there was no more hanky panky in the back of taxi cabs. (Ladies and gentlemen, we have a young French lady who has joined our class and for her I suggest for hanky panky – galipettes).
Of concertos RVW wrote few but was prepared to try anything once. For Harriet Cohen he wrote a piano concerto in return for 10,000 kisses. In the fifties he wrote a tuba concerto for Philip Catalinet, lead tuba player of the Philharmonia and a harmonica concerto for that greatest of mouth organ players, Larry Adler who had taken up asylum in Britain to escape the McCarthy UnAmerican Activities Committee. Larry Adler might have described a spade as a spade but he would never describe a harmonica as anything but a mouth organ.
Well now the journey seemed over but RVW wanted to go on. And on. His concise eighth symphony with a cornet and vibraphone was written in the USA and dedicated to Glorious John (Barbirolli). It was followed by the ninth first performed in April 1958 under Sargent. At 86 he had produced a symphony which generated enormous power and included in its orchestration three saxophones (two tenor and one alto) and the strange wide bore flugelhorn. Its battery includes timpani, side drums, bass drum cymbals, triangle, gong, tam-tam, bells, glockenspiel, xylophone and celesta. Thomas Tallis would not have just turned but would have risen from his grave. RVW’s original intention was going to be a programme symphony based on Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Though he dropped the idea his sketches indicated movements relating to people and events in the novel with the first movement headed “Wessex Prelude”. Being wise after the event the last movement could well describe the bleak landscape of Egdon Heath. As with his good friend, Gustav Holst before him, he had kept the faith in reproducing Hardy’s rural England. But no-one could any longer refer to the Country Bumpkin School of Composers. If RVW’s physical powers were failing him his inner ear remained as sharp and powerful as it had ever been. There remained something of his old self but mystifying at the same time.
On 5th August 1958 the ninth symphony was due to be recorded under Boult, the day when Ralph Vaughan Williams died. That evening I was at a Promenade Concert with the Halle under Barbirolli. The programme was changed and Johann Strauss or whatever was replaced by the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Glorious John wept as he conducted.