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.