Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of England's greatest 20th-century composers: his <em>Lark Ascending<

The New Statesman

6 September 1958

There is no doubt that Vaughan Williams was an English worthy. He was everything we most love and admire: a blunt countryman without urban fuss or frills, yet a "character", known everywhere, as characters often are, simply by his initials, and carrying on in business to the last. Since the Second War, VW had come to be widely regarded abroad, especially in the United States, as the very voice of England. And so he was. His music often brought to our London concert halls the wide skies of the Norfolk fenland or the broad sweep of his native Cotswolds; and during rehearsals his large, tweed-clad frame, slumped heavily in a stall but always shrewdly watchful, would suggest not so much the world-famous composer as a sound judge of livestock at some county fair.

Born in 1872, Ralph Vaughan Williams became the leading figure in the second generation of modern British composers - that is, if we count Parry, Stanford and the somewhat younger Elgar as the first. Elgar stood aloof from the academic world; but for Stanford and Parry, with both of whom VW studied, music meant primarily the German classical tradition, with Brahms as its great contemporary representative. The young VW found this Anglo-German academic tradition stifling; it was a foreign language in which he could not express his own ideas. To escape, he even studied for a while with Ravel: a surprising but not altogether unfruitful choice of master. But not until he had begun to collect and study our national folk music did he find a fully congenial style. English folksong remained the strongest element in his musical idiom - although it may be added that in his very best works the debt is least obvious.

The second great influence in his creative life was his love for Tudor music, life and literature. We can feel this sympathy in his Falstaff opera, Sir John in Love, and most of all in that racy choral work, Five Tudor Portraits, based on the congenially eccentric poems of John Skelton. The portraits come to life; and we get some notion of the breadth of the composer's sympathies when we turn from the hiccups and comic hesitations of Skelton's alehouse slut, Drunken Alice, to the most famous of all VW's "Tudor" works, the Fantasy on a Theme by Tallis. At the climaxes of this noble piece, the elaborate writing for divided strings suggests a new spatial dimension: we look as though from the floor to the vaulted roof of some English cathedral nave.

Until the three middle symphonies (Nos 4 to 6), it was certainly the Tallis Fantasy which did most to spread the composer's name. In general, his music has proved a bad traveller. There is in it a certain rough-cast quality, a lofty contempt for "good taste", a thoroughly English indifference to qualities of texture and pure sound. When, in his last three symphonies, he began to make experiments in sonority and texture, the results were often crude: the octogenarian composer was like a small boy with a big new paintbox supplied by some not very distinguished commercial firm. And yet he was capable, when so moved, of weaving subtle and exquisite tonal designs, as in the Tallis Fantasy or in one of the most beautiful of his shorter pieces, the Serenade to Music, which he wrote in honour of Sir Henry Wood's jubilee.

Among his huge output, there are delightful songs and other shorter pieces from which Time may select a few specimens to keep his name alive. But his serious reputation will rest on his symphonies; and not, I think, on the last three of his old age, nor yet on the first three, with their picturesque titles (Sea, London, Pastoral), but on the central group, which have no titles. The Fourth, one of VW's incursions into harsh modernity, is a terrible debate on concepts of violence and power which seemed especially topical at the date of the symphony's appearance (1935) - though, alas, they have remained no less topical ever since; this is probably, as a whole, the composer's symphonic masterpiece. The Fifth, though it appeared in wartime, stands at the opposite emotional extreme: it is serene and consolatory. The Sixth (1948) has been called a synthesis of the two previous works, but seems also to look with a strangely clear gaze into the troubled future.

It is the meditation of a ripe and profound mind on the destiny of man, threatened by sinister forces, yet capable still of nobility. The work ends with a ghostly Epilogue, some ten minutes long, which is like nothing else in music. Tenuous wisps of melody float around one another in a perpetual pianissimo, combining and recombining into shapes of desolate beauty. What does it all mean, the beauty and the desolation? Everyone who hears it asks that question, convinced that behind the bare, pure design there must lurk some further significance. Is it the vision of a dead planet after the brief human interlude has been blotted out - an idea then horrifyingly new? That may be at once too fanciful and too literal an interpretation; yet this music does indeed appear to speak of First and Last Things, and to penetrate, in the words of another sage, "as far as thought can reach". Whatever the nature of the composer's vision, his final bars, inconceivably remote from human warmth, accept the mysterious end with dignity and calm.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug