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28 September 2022

The vision of Ralph Vaughan Williams

In reviving local and popular musical traditions, the composer found haunting new expressions of Englishness.

By Rowan Williams

One of the most intriguing features of British social history of the later 19th century is the emergence of a cultivated, liberal upper-middle class whose roots lay in industry and craft as well as in the more traditional world of the “professions”: teaching, medicine, church and law. Often originating in the Midlands and the north of England, and with connections in the networks of dissenting (non-Church of England) religion, they built modest fortunes, sometimes allied themselves by marriage with more conventional establishment dynasties, and provided a seedbed for much of the radical and creative thinking of the late Victorian age and beyond.

Prominent in any catalogue of such families are the Wedgwoods and the Darwins; the Trevelyans, Sidgwicks and Bensons are among other names that come to mind. The narrowness of the English university system in the 19th century meant that gifted young men from these families were likely to meet as students – and, for whatever reason, Cambridge attracted more of them than Oxford. Their families intermarried, and created a huge spider’s web of cousinage across the cultural world of Victorian and Edwardian England.

The families never constituted a European-style intelligentsia, politically restless, pushing against bourgeois tyranny and philistinism; and they stood at a remove from the aristocratic and literary coteries of the age, although a certain amount of overlap developed in the early 20th century. But they were committed to progressive causes, liberal or mildly socialist in politics, intellectually unafraid, religiously agnostic or at least unorthodox, and sometimes idiosyncratic in behaviour (Gwen Raverat’s wonderful childhood memoir, Period Piece, is an unforgettable portrait of the Darwin family in all their majestic oddity). They nurtured some of the most serious scholars of the period, and at least one of the most justly and lastingly celebrated of English musicians – Ralph Vaughan Williams, the subject of a new biography by Eric Saylor, published on the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Seeing RVW – as he was regularly referred to in his lifetime – against this social background helps us understand why he was able to combine being (across several generations) an icon of national stability and cultural identity with a striking detachment from both the competitive anxieties and the rewards of the establishment (he refused a knighthood and only reluctantly accepted the Order of Merit). He approached “Englishness” out of a historical experience that was neither that of simple inherited power and entitlement, nor that of privation and struggle.

[See also: Philip Larkin is a love poet who doesn’t trust love]

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Born in Gloucestershire in 1872, Vaughan Williams was the son of a prosperous clerical family that had married into the Darwin/Wedgwood clan, part of a social world which had to some extent rewarded hard work and inventiveness and which coped well with eccentric individualism. As Saylor, an American music professor, puts it, many in RVW’s family and immediate circle “occupied positions outside the usual class boundaries of British society, providing a certain latitude in their beliefs and behaviour”. Their sense of national and cultural identity was not mortgaged to imperial mythologies or to the defensive xenophobia of popular Victorian sentiment.

RVW was from an early age determined to be not only a composer but a particular kind of composer, one whose music would open doors for an entire national community and provide a shared language. He was as devoted as any Gareth Malone to communal music-making, from his early days as a (somewhat rebellious) church organist to his work with the Leith Hill Musical Festival, conducting amateur orchestras and choirs. But this deep commitment to the local and national was inseparable from his concern that the groups he worked with should be exposed to a challenging, innovative and international musical tradition. Writing for and working with an English public was for RVW a matter of affirming the distinctive features of a local musical genius within a rich diversity of musical cultures.

He grew up in a musical world where the prevailing orthodoxies were fixed by German models; serious music was firmly in the succession running from Beethoven to Mendelssohn. The prominent English composers of the day, figures such as Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, produced stately, rich and often emotionally powerful work firmly within this style; it worked well as far as it went, but it could also be overpoweringly stodgy.

RVW began his studies in composition under Parry himself, but was intrigued by older and less familiar strands in musical practice, pre-modern and non-European. He experimented with melodies based on modes, which divide up the notes in an eight-note sequence in ways other than the familiar do-re-mi scale (try playing a succession of scales starting from different notes using the white notes of the piano only, and you have some idea). Such modal melodies are heard in folk songs and early Western music and (with some refinements) in plainsong. He explored the use of the pentatonic scale (this time, play only the black notes on the keyboard), which is common in Asian music. Parry, although a bit baffled by RVW’s enthusiasm, gave him generous encouragement; Stanford, with whom RVW also studied, was less tolerant.

But the really significant development was when RVW – already a Cambridge doctor of music and a seasoned choir director, with a few well-received compositions to his name – decided in 1907 to study in Paris with Maurice Ravel. RVW had already worked briefly in Germany, but felt the need to immerse himself in a completely different musical atmosphere. Ravel, the quintessentially Gallic musical voice of his time, was the true catalyst for RVW’s distinctive English style. He famously said that RVW was the only pupil of his “who does not write my music”; and it is true that what RVW took from Ravel was not a set of musical ideas but a new boldness and clarity in orchestration.

RVW came back from France with a new lightness of touch and a much enhanced imaginative flair in bringing out the contrasting voices of different instruments within an orchestral composition. Throughout his career as a composer, he knew exactly how to deploy a solo instrument or a small group of instruments to intensify transitions in a piece or to create a specific climate of feeling. The use of the solo trumpet in the Pastoral Symphony of 1922, of oboes in dialogue in the Fourth Symphony (1935), or of the solo violin in “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’” (1939) are just a few examples. Perhaps its supreme instance in his early work is the meditative ebb and flow of violin and full orchestra in “The Lark Ascending” (1920) – for many people, one of the most hauntingly lovely of all his works.

[See also: The infinite art of John Donne]

But RVW was also able to marshal larger instrumental forces with a new intelligence and power. The arresting opening to the song-cycle “On Wenlock Edge” (1909) and, most overwhelmingly, the colossal but fluid energy of the massed strings in the great 1910 “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” illustrate some of the ways in which Ravel’s teaching had released something distinctive in RVW’s voice.

RVW was undoubtedly one of the great songwriters of the era. It is startling to realise that he composed “Linden Lea”, a setting of a poem by the Dorset writer William Barnes and one of the best-known of his smaller vocal works, at the age of 29; and he was still setting poems literally up to the day of his death. His “Five Mystical Songs” (1911), using text by the 17th century poet George Herbert, is still a standard in the repertoire of any self-respecting baritone – even if (to express a heretical opinion) he doesn’t quite find the right register for the fifth of these (“Love Bade Me Welcome”), where the prosaic and austere words are swamped by an uncomfortably romantic choral backing.

And of course there is the enormous treasury of his settings of English folk song (the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society has recently been sponsoring a complete programme of recordings under the label of Albion Records); RVW was a major participant along with Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles in the rediscovery and cataloguing of traditional songs in the 1890s and 1900s, and maintained throughout his life an active concern with folk singing and traditional dance. It was part of his dedication to music as a genuinely democratic business (a conviction that he shared with Parry, though they found radically different ways of expressing it). Music for RVW was not – or not just – an affair of high art or solitary genius: it was something that came from the grass roots and was always nourished by them, something that needed to return to local and popular tradition to be revived.

In the same spirit, the composer was, among other things, a jobbing music-maker. RVW – rather like JS Bach – made a living as a teacher and conductor, as someone always willing to turn out a commissioned piece, whether for a coronation, a friend’s wedding or a local community celebration. Saylor’s book, which alternates strictly biographical chapters with brief but engaging surveys of the music of particular periods, provides a full and accessible catalogue of RVW’s works. A brief glance at this will show the variety of the output.

The undramatic, unselfish work of editing was something he undertook willingly: The English Hymnal of 1906, compiled in collaboration with an idiosyncratic Anglo-Catholic socialist priest, Percy Dearmer, and another jobbing composer, Martin Shaw, is a lasting monument to RVW’s belief that even rather dim and unadventurous Anglican congregations deserved the liveliest possible musical diet. He ransacked his folk-song collections as well as the spirited metrical psalms of the 16th century and a variety of European sources – German, French, Welsh and Russian – for tunes that had real musical quality, as opposed to the dutiful automatic-pilot productions of Victorian religiosity.

The English Hymnal – along with his Mass in G Minor, perhaps the best piece of liturgical music written in the 20th century – is an odd legacy for someone who had abandoned his family’s religious beliefs as a teenager; but RVW’s agnosticism was a complex affair. He retained a strong attachment to the sounds and spectacle of traditional worship, returned repeatedly to Christian texts and themes in his work, and was always hospitable to those dimensions of human experience that defied verbal analysis.

Saylor’s work is an attractive and readable introduction to this great figure. As he admits, it cannot replace the pair of seminal books from the 1960s, Michael Kennedy’s survey of Vaughan Williams’s music and the biography by RVW’s widow, Ursula, a work of great warmth and vividness. Saylor is refreshingly matter-of-fact in his treatment of the one major issue left unmentioned by Ursula Vaughan Williams – that she and RVW began a passionate affair well before the death of the composer’s first wife, Adeline, and Ursula’s first husband, and that RVW’s first wife (by that time physically disabled and seriously ill) almost certainly knew about this and probably encouraged it.

But Saylor is also clear, rather more so than Ursula in her biography, that Adeline continued to play a vital role of comment, criticism and encouragement in RVW’s creative work up to the end of her life; the marriage was a rock of stability for RVW, and Adeline’s death left him desolate. Ursula, 40 years younger and a talented poet, brought him new inspiration and security and they collaborated happily on several works. It is right, though, that Adeline’s musical intelligence receives due recognition here, with welcome quotations from her correspondence.

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When he died in 1958, English (and British) music had changed greatly, and even RVW’s brand of radicalism could look old-fashioned. It was tempting to view him as a musical equivalent of John Betjeman, a national treasure of the teddy-bear type (though anyone seeing it in those terms could not have read Betjeman very carefully). Saylor’s judicious, comprehensive study makes us look again at the novelty and the emotional and imaginative courage of the work. It illuminates, RVW’s organic blend of localism and internationalism, and the subtext of tragedy beneath the surface lyricism – as in the Pastoral Symphony, for example, which disturbingly pulls us away from the English idyll it begins by celebrating, and forces a new perspective on us, inflected by the horrors of the First World War. RVW had worked in the trenches with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and so had seen the worst; he did not forget the experience. The Sixth Symphony, on which he worked during and after the Second World War, paints a frighteningly desolate picture of a world of endemic conflict and ultimate dissolution.

He is a tougher, stranger composer than we might have thought – still a master of heartbreakingly beautiful melody, but a musician who has earned the right to lyrical pathos and intensity by his honest gaze at a world where (as in his great “Masque for Dancing” based on the Book of Job) the dance of the morning stars is always balanced by the Satanic energy that pushes us towards pain and despair. It was RVW’s conviction, secularist as he was, that something had to be done in the name of redemption and promise for individuals and for national communities alike. That was what his music was for, in all its profusion and variety.

Vaughan Williams
Eric Saylor
OUP, 336pp, £26.99

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion