Reactionary Composer of the Week: Ralph Vaughan Williams

When I talk about classical music with people, they sometimes ask me who is my all-time favorite composer. I never quite know what to answer, but the name I usually mention is that of Ralph Vaughan Williams. (The “Ralph,” by the way, is pronounced “Rayf,” as with the actor Ralph Fiennes.)

You may or may not have heard of Vaughan Williams before—he’s considered a national treasure in the UK, particularly in England, but is much less well known on my corner of the continent—but even if you haven’t, chances are good that you’ve heard his music. For example, his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for—get this—two string orchestras and string quartet has been used in several film scores. Many of Vaughan Williams’s works have a nationalist tint, and often take their inspiration from English folk music and Tudor-age hymns and dances. (Apart from composing, Vaughan Williams also did groundbreaking work in the collection and study of English folk songs, and was one of the editors of the first English Hymnal.)

I can pinpoint the moment Vaughan Williams became one of my favorite composers—it was the first time I heard The Lark Ascending, a relatively early work for solo violin and orchestra. I know certain purists think it a bit vulgar to be too enthusiastic about Lark…, since it’s such a well-known and widely beloved piece. But, to quote General Eisenhower, their numbers are few, and they are stupid. Thus, I’ll be fortright: This is, without a doubt, one of the most heartrendingly gorgeous things I have ever heard, and I’ve only come to love it more since the first time I heard it. It is nothing less than the inner witness of the Holy Spirit given miraculous outward expression. By this, I don’t just mean that its beauty carries the listener above and beyond this world, though I do also mean that. I mean that this kind of music simply couldn’t exist in a meaningless, Godless universe. (Incredibly, Vaughan Williams himself was an agnostic.)

I could go on gushing like this for pages, and I’m sure I don’t need to convince you that my prose would only get purpler if I did, so let’s cut it short here and go to a good performance of Lark…, featuring violinist Iona Brown and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under conductor Neville Marriner. If you want to do me a favor, stop whatever you’re doing at the moment, close your eyes, and listen to this, even—no, especially—if you’re not that interested in classical music.

The most remarkable thing about Lark… is that it is not a one-off. In fact, virtually every other Vaughan Williams piece I’ve heard has the same kind of otherworldly beauty. This is true not only of chestnuts like the Tallis Fantasia, the first Norfolk Rhapsody, and the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, but also of smaller and lesser-known pieces like the Phantasy Quintet and the Oboe Concerto.

While Vaughan Williams’s music is often pastoral and lyrical, it can also be angular and modernistic without becoming ugly or incomprehensible. I’ll end the post with an excellent example of this—the first movement of his Piano Concerto. The pianist is Howard Shelley, and the orchestra is the Royal Philharmonic under conductor Vernon Handley.

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26 thoughts on “Reactionary Composer of the Week: Ralph Vaughan Williams

  1. Vaughan Williams’ music is quintessentially English – or it was until England began evolving into a multi-cultural no-man’s land. The Lark Ascending is unheard of in the experience of most people in England now.

    “The art of music above all other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation. What I mean by nation is any community of people who are spiritually bound together by language, environment, history and common ideals, and, above all, a continuity with the past.” – Ralph Vaughan Williams.

  2. I strongly recommend Tony Palmer’s film about RVW, O Thou Transcendent. It concentrates on RVW’s nine symphonies and includes meaningful, long passages from each of the nine.

  3. Many people who enjoy RVW eventually wonder if there are kindred composers, so perhaps a follow-up piece or pieces would be in order. Perhaps something about Edmund Rubbra — ?

    A sample:

    • Kindred spirits? There’s George Butterworth for instance who was a friend of Vaughan Williams. Butterworth’s composition, The Banks of Green Willow is very beautiful; it’s based on a couple of English folk melodies.

      Maybe Delius would count as another kindred spirit in the world of Vaughan Williams?

  4. My favourite composer too, and I also found him via “The Lark Ascending”. Besides the other pieces you mentioned, I am also fond of his symphonies. The quiet 2nd movement “On the beach at night, alone” from “A Sea Symphony” and the haunting 2nd movement from “A London Symphony” in particular.

  5. I love Vaughan Williams, but, as to politics, I believe he was a convinced socialist. Of course, in his time, many socialists were patriotic and socially conservative.

    I was listening to VW’s 5th symphony the other day. His symphonies tend to be neglected in favour of his more popular works, like the Greensleeves Fantasia.

    On a slightly pedantic point, I’d note that he was of Welsh heritage, so his nationality was British rather than English (I’m of Welsh ancestry myself – this stuff matters!).

    • To also be slightly pedantic, RVW was in fact only one eighth Welsh at the most (his ancestry beyond his Welsh born paternal great grandfather does not appear to have been ascertained). All his other seven great grandparents were English. He was also, of course, born, nurtured and educated in England. Hardly of ” Welsh heritage”. These things do indeed matter!

  6. @thomasbertonneau: I’ve heard good things about “O Thou Transcendent” elsewhere, but never got around to watching it. I think I will now, your recommendation having convinced me.
    @Dale and @Alex: All good suggestions. I would also add Gerald Finzi, a friend and musical kindred spirit of VW.
    @Reggie Perrin: Like Orwell, Vaughan Williams seems to have been an Anglican atheist and a Tory socialist. But as I explained in the first post of this series, the word “reactionary” refers, in this context, purely to a traditional or tonal musical style, and says nothing at all about the composer’s politics. Keeping that in mind, and keeping in mind that VW lived into the age of Boulez and Stockhausen without ever giving up on tonality, I think my characterization still stands. Didn’t know about the Welsh ancestry–do you happen to know if VW is especially revered in Wales as a result?
    @HenryOrientJnr and @Reggie again: How could I have forgotten the symphonies! The second and fifth are among my favorites also.

  7. ALEX – RACIST garbage. RVW was a socialist, his vision endures, people of all origins who have settled and live here identify with his Englishness as their own. “The Lark” is NOT unknown, it’s consistently voted favourite piece of music in the UK time and again, and perhaps some of them may just be of Asian, African, European, Chinese or other non-English origin, just maybe , or is that too much for your narrow little Englander brain to cotton onto? RVW saw something in our history which is universal in its appeal, and in its many messages – try Adrian Boult’s mono reading of the 6th Symphony finale for its commentary on the human condition. As for non-tonal music, one of my favourite RVW stories is, he’s in the US on a lecture tour, he meets with a young, impressionable composer who wants him to look at the score of his latest opus. “Fascinating, young man. Now if a tune should occur to you, you won’t forget to write it down.” And I always feel smug when I saw the strength and originality of the Ninth when music experts were writing it off just after it was first performed. X – an unknown quantity. Spurt – a drip under pressure ….

  8. I appreciate your statement, “I mean that this kind of music simply couldn’t exist in a meaningless, Godless universe.” I’ve long felt a conviction I can’t explain that Beethoven’s late piano sonatas are a proof of the existence of something that transcends the material universe. The man who wrote them must have been in contact with the divine.

  9. Don’t neglect his choral music either. The not-as-well-known mass in g minor is the among most beautiful pieces of music i have ever heard.

  10. I would LOVE to get hold of the Vaughan Williams English hymnal or – was it a Penguin anthology – of English folk songs, also edited by him?

    Was just listening to him this morning actually.

    I wonder how much the beauty of The Lark Ascending derives from the poetic imagery? The title serves as a statement of intent, the accompanying poem fills in the details, and the basic ascending melody on which the piece is based is, essentially, an illustration of in music of this poetic image.

    I wouldn’t try and listen to The Lark Ascending every morning though – it does have a rare beauty to it, but, like the lark, it comes and goes. You don’t so much discover the music as let it discover you. I’ve found this sort of thing often with RVW; the music of his that sticks most deeply with you will be that which you hardly intend to listen to at all – the small swells, the pre-conscious details, the light and shade and timbres that work in contrast with one another, a thousand small cumulative moments that work upon you in ways that you had not thought possible.

  11. Alex, you’re welcome. If you’d left your Daily Mail comment out, it would have been better. Don’t you get it, such comments are offensive and surely have no place when discussing RVW who is for all listeners who have an ear for beautiful music.

    • I’d no idea that you’d been appointed as a censor here. Though my opinions don’t meet with your approval, that’s no reason to modify them. Not everyone who deplores the state of England now is intimidated by ritual shrieks of ‘racist’, nor worries about being denounced as a ‘little Englander’.

      If your assertion about the ethnic diversity of the audience for Vaughan Williams’ music or even your claim that The Lark Ascending is a favourite piece of music were true, the facts would not rest merely on your say-so.

      I’ll grant that The Lark is heard infrequently by listeners to Radio 3. I heard it broadcast myself a few weeks ago. It may be among that small and elite audience’s favourites.

      However, according to RAJAR’s figures, Radio 3 has about 2 million weekly listeners and a network share of 1.2%. So being a favourite piece of music on Radio 3 does not mean it’s popular in the generally understood wider sense.

  12. Vaughan Williams: “In every nation except ours the power of
    nationalism in art is recognized. It is this very advocacy of a colourless
    cosmopolitanism which makes one occasionally despair of England as a
    musical nation.”

    And though he broke with the Anglican Church he nonetheless wrote: “May we take it that the object of all art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is
    beyond human senses and human faculties—of that in fact which is
    spiritual?”

  13. Alex – the consistent evidence is that The Lark is the UK’s favourite piece of classical music, beyond R3. It isn’t just an elite, it speaks far wider than that, I’m glad to say. I was surprised when it was claimed, and even more that it has continued in No1 position over some years. And you don’t seem to lie the idea that “non-English” people might love The Lark too? I am pretty sure of one thing, and that is he would not have cared a hoot. Censor? No, you added that in, I sounded a protest. Free speech both ways, or is that uncomfortable for you? Do you suppose that, making an offensive claim, you are then protected against reply from someone who found it both out-of-place in this discussion, and offensive? The BNP sing Land of Hope and Glory, they wave the union flag, but they don’t count as patriots in my book.

    If RVW said that, Mark Richardson, no doubt it was after reading the Daily Wail. He perhaps was feeling jaded, because Holst, Elgar, Bliss, Rawsthorne, and many others should have made him know better. Though one admits that even he was subject to that post-death neglect by our chattering classes who labour as our self-appointed experts (X, an unknown quantity, spurt, a drip under pressure) – too many tunes perhaps and people thinking e.g. The Pastoral Symphony was about cows in a field etc rather than an almost unfathomable engagement with the loss of the First World War. If ever there was a musical equivalent of ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ it must surely be the 3rd movement of that, possibly England’s greatest symphony.

    He was by self-admission a Christian agnostic (well done, Ralph, for another obscure and diverting quote) and who would argue his hymn settings are amongst the very finest – but He Who Would True Valour See in its original language replete with those ‘hobgoblins and foul fiends’ if you please. I’m also reminded of his power to set a one Act libretto, along with Britten and Holst. ‘Riders to the Sea’ bleak and decidedly not rural cows in field stuff, harrowing indeed.

  14. “Job: A Masque for Dancing” should not go unmentioned here. If you want one work that represents both sides of RVW – the English pastoralist of “The Lark Ascending” and the strident modernist of the 4th Symphony – at their greatest, then this is it.

    It’s said that Bruno Walter attended an early performance of this great work under the direction of Sir Adrian Boult and approached the conductor afterwards with the words: “but this is the most beautiful music that anybody ever wrote!” – or something like that.

    I’d also put in a word for “Sir John in Love” – which, in my heart of hearts, I love, if possible, even more than Verdi’s “Falstaff”

  15. I think maybe it’s only well-known among the cult of vocalists, but RVW set to music a set of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson called “Song of Travel.” Just beautiful music, and although not as pianistic as Schumann, the conversation between the voice and the piano is just as present as much of Schumann’s lieder. I have a recording of Bryn Terfel singing these, among other English revivalist works. It’s fine, but I think his voice is too much of the bravura sort for this song cycle, which should be introspective and intimate.

  16. Pingback: A remembrance of times past, in music « Well, This Is What I Think

  17. RVW: …interesting comments and viewpoints! Certainly, he’s my favorite composer (other favorites might be found in several of the works from Holst, Finzi, Sibelius, Mahler, Elgar, Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Ravel, Mathieu, Yoshimatsu et al.)

  18. I have loved Ralph Vaughan Williams for many, many years. I definitely like his symphonies 4 and 5, as well as his music for the 49th Parallel. Another good English pastoralist is Granville Bantock. Now he’s practically unknown.

    • As I said here before, from late childhood/early teens for me. So much to love and admire – perhaps for me, the Pastoral Symphony, nothing like Beethoven’s, maybe his Requiem with the natural trumpet in the 2nd movement redolent of “bugles calling for them from sad shires” and the 3rd perhaps evoking ‘the lads in their hundreds’. By the way, I have now got British Music Radio online, and new programmes going up regularly, 2 today including the world premiere, exclusive to BMR, of the violin piano transcription of Frank Bridge’s eloquent Cello Sonata, arranged with Bridges imprimatur by his violin colleague in the famed pre-war English String Quartet in which Bridge played the viola – http://www.britishmusicradio.net

      You’ll also be able to access Ken Russell’s seminal Delius film and a lovely rendition of RVW’s London Symphony accompanied by a host of period-apt paintings of London.

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