RVW and group

Outside Sheldonian, Oxford. Parry Memorial Concert given by Oxford Bach Choir, 7 March 1948 ©Oxford Bach Choir

The life and music of Ralph Vaughan Williams
A brief exploration

Achievements and Recognition

By 1930, Ralph and Adeline had moved to White Gates near Dorking, a house that suited Adeline whose arthritis was becoming more of a problem. For that year’s Leith Hill Festival, Ralph composed three new pieces, one for each division: Benedicite, Three Choral Hymns and the Hundredth Psalm.

By New Year’s Day, 1932, Vaughan Williams was thoroughly absorbed by a new symphony, his fourth. When the work was first performed on 10 April 1935, it was revealed as a work of remarkable power and intensity. Its ferocity can startle even today, familiar as we are with the clashing semitones of the opening Allegro. Why did he write in this way? The composer consistently rejected any suggestion that the work was related to external events: “I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external, for example, the state of Europe, but simply because it occurred to me like this. I can’t explain why…” No composer can be completely immune from outside influences, especially someone with Vaughan Williams’ sensitivity. Ursula Vaughan Williams sees the work as characteristic of the man who wrote it: “The towering furies of which he was capable, his fire, pride and strength are all revealed and so are his imagination and lyricism.” The symphony, combining concentration, symphonic cohesiveness and logic, certainly succeeds on its own merits.

Holst and Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst on a walking holiday

White Gates

The White Gates

In 1934, before the first performance of the symphony, his close friend Gustav Holst died. Vaughan Williams wrote “My only thought is now that which ever way I turn, what are we to do without him — everything seems to have turned back to him — what would Gustav think or advise to do?”

In May 1935, Vaughan Williams received a letter from Buckingham Palace conferring on him the Order of Merit in the Birthday Honours for services to music. This is a very special award, held by only twenty-four people at any time. Vaughan Williams disliked status symbols but on this occasion decided to accept. His family and friends were delighted.

During the spring and summer of 1935, Vaughan Williams was absorbed by a new work, his “Skelton oratorio”, the Five Tudor Portraits. John Skelton’s verse is ironic, humorous and earthy, yet with a wonderful vein of tenderness and beauty. It certainly appealed to Vaughan Williams who thoroughly enjoyed setting the poems. The work was completed by June 1935, Vaughan Williams having abandoned a sixth portrait, of Margery Wentworth. Scored for contralto, baritone, chorus and orchestra, it was first performed at the Norwich Festival in September 1936. This choral suite conveys a wide range of emotions whilst portraying the vitality of Skelton’s Tudor England.

Another work of 1935 brought out rather different emotions. This was Dona Nobis Pacem, to words by Walt Whitman, the Bible and other sources. This work explores the horror of war as both Whitman and Vaughan Williams had experienced It. The soprano’s imploring refrain — “Dona Nobis Pacem” — gives the work unity and purpose.

In 1937, Vaughan Williams received the first award of the Shakespeare Prize from the University of Hamburg. Vaughan Williams, having taken advice, accepted the award. By February 1939, however, his music had been banned in Germany over its alleged anti-Nazi “propaganda”. No one quite knew why.

Both 1936 and 1937 saw first performances of new operas. Firstly, on 12 May 1936, at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge, there was the premiere of The Poisoned Kiss, subtitled “The Empress and the Necromancer”. This “romantic extravaganza” was written by Evelyn Sharp, sister of Cecil Sharp the folk song collector, and is founded on incidents taken from The Poisoned Maid by Richard Garnett. It is another humorous, high-spirited and romantic work, following on from Sir John in Love. It provided immense enjoyment to the composer, who told Hubert Foss that he was writing music he really liked.

The second opera of this period is very different in style. Riders to the Sea is an almost verbatim setting of a short play by the Irishman J.M. Synge. Composed in 1926-27, it was first performed publicly at the Royal College of Music on 1 December 1937, conducted by Malcolm Sargent. The opera centres around Maurya who has lost her father, husband and four of her six sons at sea. One of her remaining sons, Michael, has been missing for some days. Her youngest son soon leaves to take some horses across the water to Galway Fair. Maurya realises her sons will never return. Her poignant final lament beginning “They are all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me” is one of Vaughan Williams most inspired passages. In its concentration, subtlety and tenderness, Riders to the Sea is a masterpiece.

To cap a year of operatic achievement, Hugh the Drover was revived at Sadler’s Wells in 1937.

Ursula Wood, a writer and poet, who was to become his second wife in 1953, had seen Job in the 1932-33 season, while a student at the Old Vic. She was overcome by the music and resolved to contact the composer. Marriage to a gunnery instructor took her away, however, and it was not until early 1938 that she contacted the composer regarding her idea for a ballet. They met on 31 March 1938 and established from the beginning a close artistic and personal rapport. Ursula’s husband died in 1942.

Ursula Vaughan Williams

Ursula Vaughan Williams

Soon after meeting Ursula, Vaughan Williams received a request from Henry Wood for a work to celebrate his Jubilee concert. Wood wanted something for sixteen soloists and Vaughan Williams, with his deep knowledge of Shakespeare, chose the text from the beautiful scene between Jessica and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. The resulting Serenade to Music is one of the composer’s most gorgeous and timeless works.

‘Serenade to Music’ conducted by Sir Henry Wood in 1938. Vaughan Williams can be seen sitting beneath the stage.

With the outbreak of war in early September 1939, Vaughan Williams became involved in many wartime activities — helping refugees, salvaging war material and fire watching as well as contributing music to wartime films, including Coastal Command and 49th Parallel. Toward the end of the war, the BBC commissioned a work of thanksgiving for the expected victory. This became A Song of Thanksgiving.

As we have seen, Vaughan Williams became involved in a setting of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in the first decade of the twentieth century, and composed his one act opera The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains in 1922. By 1938 he was working on a full-scale dramatisation. Believing that the Morality (as he later called it) might never be performed, he channelled some of the music into a new symphony, his fifth. To sharpen the association with Bunyan’s memorable allegory, the third movement Romanza originally bore the following quotation: “Upon this land stood a cross, and a little below a sepulchre. Then he said: “He hath given me rest by His sorrows and life by His death.”

The new symphony was first performed at a Promenade Concert in London on 24 June 1943, with the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Following the calculated violence of the Fourth Symphony, this deeply contemplative and radiant music seemed to many commentators at the time as presaging an end to the war. It is suffused with that visionary, luminous quality that distinguished all Vaughan Williams’ writing inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progress. Other commentators at the time of its first performance saw the work as a serene, final benediction from a composer turned seventy. How wrong they were: Vaughan Williams would live another fifteen years and write four more symphonies.

After the War, “Uncle Ralph”, or just “The Uncle”, as he was known to his family and friends, was composing his Sixth Symphony. It was first performed on 21 April 1948 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The work made an immediate and profound impression. Deryck Cooke, who heard the first performance referred to the “ultimate nihilism” of the last movement — “every drop of blood seemed frozen in one’s veins”. Once again, given the power, vehemence and desolation of the music, commentators interpreted the work as Vaughan Williams’ response to war, the purges of Stalin and the horrors of the concentration camps. The composer’s answer was characteristic: “I suppose it never occurs to these people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.” Vaughan Williams did, however, provide a clue to that original and disturbing last movement. Ursula Vaughan Williams has confirmed that her husband was influenced by Prospero’s speech from Act 4 of The Tempest, including these lines: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,/And our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

The Prelude to the ’49th Parallel’ (1941)

© Stephen Connock MBE
Vice President Ralph Vaughan Williams Society