Essays

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Life for Music

by Paul Comben

WE ARE IN the Queen’s Hall, London, on one of the major British concert evenings of 1935. About us, the auditorium is steadily filling with people about to hear the premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. Although some news of the work’s content has leaked out, most are clearly expecting another of Dr. Williams’ “pleasant pastoral interludes”.

Within the next hour or so however, all such illusions will be shattered. The symphony shocks and surprises the audience with its violence and anger. Many find it ugly and incomprehensible. Some critics assert afterwards that its concert life will be short-lived, while others see it as the composer turning his back on earlier folk-song influences in order to become a more “European” artist. Both views, as time will show, are hopelessly wrong and wide of the mark.

The reaction of critics to the Fourth Symphony was typical of how they constantly tried to pin down and classify a composer whose originality and sheer creativity defied all their efforts so to do. The symphony’s life was not short, for it has long since been regarded as one of the greatest symphonic works of this century.

Furthermore, it did not indicate that Vaughan Williams was abandoning his folksong roots, for within a few years he would be composing his Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus, perhaps the most beautiful of his folk-song arrangements. Of the symphony the composer himself said: “I don’t know if I like it, but it is what I meant”. Such honesty and lack of pomp was ever a feature of the music of Vaughan Williams and, indeed, of the man himself.

To appreciate the work of this composer to the full, such understanding of his character is certainly essential. Here was a man who loved life, and who took his greatest pleasures in the joys of the English countryside, and the song of those who tended it. He was bluff, jolly and affable, sometimes mystical, but also, when the mood took him, capable of towering rages, as many a slack musician and orchestra found out.

Of works such as the Fourth Symphony, it may also be said that they displayed the conscience of one who was acutely aware of the inequalities and depredations suffered by his less fortunate countrymen in the opening decades of the century. He was a lifelong socialist, and displayed his genuine opposition to the Establishment by rejecting a knighthood and refusing to become Master of the Queen’s Musicke.

Long Life

During his long composing life, Vaughan Williams produced a staggering amount of music of all kinds. There were to be nine symphonies, numerous other major orchestral pieces, including concertos for violin, piano, oboe and tuba, film scores and a large amount of choral music.

The composer in 1919

Besides bearing the stamp of his character, the one thing that might be said to bind all of these different strands together is the sheer Englishness of much of the music. After completing his formal education. Vaughan Williams travelled the length and breadth of the country collecting the folk music of the different regions.

Like his close friend George Butterworth, he felt that here was a vital part of the nation’s heritage which should not be lost. Thus he spent many an evening in some remote pub trying to notate a tune sung to him by a ploughman, blacksmith or village elder.

The folk-song tradition was to permeate through the whole of his work, either by way of his own orchestrations of such tunes ― e.g.: A Norfolk Rhapsody and the Fantasia on Sussex Folk-songs ― or in the way the idiom helped shape the composition of other works such as his symphonic impression In the Fen Country.

Although the early years of this century did bring Vaughan Williams some success, it was not until 1910, at the age of thirty-eight, that his career really took off. This year saw the premiere of two major works, namely his First Symphony, entitled A Sea Symphony, and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

This latter work, based on a tune he found while editing the English Hymnal, is widely regarded as his first true masterpiece, and is a noble work by any standard. That, and his First Symphony held to establish his reputation, and their success was soon followed by another symphony, entitled A London Symphony, a work which had both audiences and fellow composers heaping praise on its creator.

Western Front

The outbreak of the Great War interrupted the career of Vaughan Williams, as it did many other British artists. Although turned forty, he enlisted at once, and served on the Western Front as a wagon orderly and later as a gunnery officer. From those dark years came the inspiration for his Third Symphony, which was called The Pastoral, but did in fact have distinct echoes of his wartime experience in it. In particular, the second movement had a section scored for solo trumpet, recalling the sounds of an army bugle heard across the shell-scarred countryside of France.

Vaughan Williams was fortunate enough to survive the war ― unlike Butterworth who was killed on the Somme aged thirty-one ― and it was a piece of good fortune for British music that he did. The coming of late middle-age did not diminish his creative fervour, for Vaughan Williams proved to be one of those exceptional artists whose powers actually wax with the passing of the years.

From the inter-war years came such masterpieces as the ballet Job, inspired by the paintings of William Blake, the Piano Concerto, the mystical Flos Campi and, of course, the Fourth Symphony.

The Second World War produced a new experience for Vaughan Williams as he became involved in writing film scores ― mainly [unfortunately] for government propaganda films. In the midst of war, however, with London devastated and the future uncertain, he produced what was to be his most peaceful and beautiful symphonic work.

The Fifth Symphony was in fact an offshoot from his efforts to compose an opera based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It was premiered on midsummer’s day 1943, and was an immediate success. The third movement contains perhaps the most sublime music the composer ever wrote, and stands next to the Larghetto of Elgar’s Second Symphony as one of the pinnacles of English romantic music.

Bow Out

By the time the war ended, Vaughan Williams was already well into his seventies and might, by any reasonable standard, have considered himself able to bow out as “The Grand Old Man of English Music”. In fact, however, the last thirteen years of his life saw him produce four more symphonies, more film work and a host of other pieces.

Of his latter symphonies, the Sixth became the best known internationally after the Fourth. It was a hectic work, rounded off with a sinister and muted epilogue. This last movement put many in mind of a world laid waste by nuclear war, and although the composer always denied this, the effect this unsettling music had on audiences was remarkable.

The Sixth was followed by Sinfonia Antarctica, a work that was an expansion on the film score he had written for Scott of the Antarctic. This symphonic work called for a large orchestra, including such exotics as a wind machine and concert organ. It signalled the kind of experimentation the composer made in his final years with unusual instruments and sound variations.

Other works to contain such experimentation include a work he wrote for the harmonica, the Tuba Concerto and his Eighth Symphony. This penultimate symphony is notable for its last movement, where the orchestra makes use of every percussion instrument capable of making a definite note.

Another important point to make about the last years of his life was that Vaughan Williams always remained an accessible artist. If amateurs asked him to a festival, he was likely not only to turn up, but also encourage, advise, conduct and even compose for the occasion. He did all he could to help young musicians, and after his death a trust fund ensured that royalties from his work went to assist them.

It is also some measure of the man that when he died in 1958, at the age of nearly eighty-six, there was a three act opera on his desk awaiting completion.

As it was, however, his last major completed work was to be his Ninth Symphony, premiered just a few months before his death. Partly inspired by Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain, the symphony was a potent mixture of ideas from earlier works, remodelled and reshaped into something entirely new.

Capturing the sense of mystery and legend which surrounds this most ancient place, the symphony opens, progresses and concludes with bars that reflect upon the riddles of life and existence, of time and the eternal and, perhaps, most of all, the questing soul of the composer himself.

* * *

Source: Roots of Radicalism

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Greetings Paul.

What?! No Lark Ascending?