Vaughan Williams and Ursula

Vaughan Williams with Ursula. ©Vaughan Williams Foundation

The life and music of Ralph Vaughan Williams
A brief exploration

The Later Years

In June 1947, Vaughan Williams received a request from Ernest Irving for music to a new film on the fateful expedition of Captain Scott to the Antarctic. Not surprisingly, the subject appealed strongly. He admired the bravery of the team even if inefficiencies in the organisation infuriated him. The score was finished in April 1948 and the film, directed by Charles Frend, appeared in December 1948, with John Mills memorable in his understated portrayal of Scott. Vaughan Williams then felt that the music could be reforged into a symphonic whole and the Sinfonia Antartica was completed in 1952. This, his seventh symphony, was first performed by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, with Margaret Ritchie singing the wordless soprano part, on 14 January 1953.

Portrait photograph by Karsh

Photograph by Yousuf Karsh.
© Kind permission of the Karsh family

Vaughan Williams’ “Morality” on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was largely completed by 1949. Covent Garden wanted to mount a production of the opera as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The first performance duly took place on 26 April of that year, conducted by Leonard Hancock, a young conductor on the staff at the Royal Opera, and produced by Nevill Coghill, an Oxford academic. Arnold Matters sang Pilgrim. Although the music was much admired, doubt was expressed after the first performance about the suitability of the opera for staging. Vaughan Williams insisted that it must remain a work for the theatre, not the cathedral. Nevill Coghill’s production was felt by Hubert Foss to be “grotesquely out of date”. The relative failure of Vaughan Williams’ long-cherished work undoubtedly hurt the composer: “They don’t like it, and perhaps never will like it, but it’s the sort of opera I wanted to write, and there it is.”

In February 1954, Cambridge University made amends to Vaughan Williams for the deficiencies of the Royal Opera production. With Dennis Arundell as producer, John Noble as Pilgrim and the orchestra conducted by Boris Ord, the work was widely admired. Ursula Vaughan Williams has said that no other service to his music gave him more satisfaction than this University production of his beloved Pilgrim’s Progress.

Adeline’s health, not strong for over thirty years, had by 1950 deteriorated badly. She died on 10 May 1951 at the age of eighty. Vaughan Williams’ own eightieth birthday occurred on 12 October 1952. His old friend, the Cambridge historian G.M. Trevelyan, wrote: “All England is rejoicing over your birthday…”

Vaughan Williams and Ursula wedding day

Vaughan Williams and Ursula Wood were married in February 1953

Ralph and Ursula Wood were married on 7 February 1953 at St. Pancras Vestry Chapel in London. Ralph’s best man at the wedding was Sir Gilmour Jenkins, a senior civil servant (Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport) who had sung Pilate in Dorking performances of Bach’s St. John Passion. The couple moved to 10 Hanover Terrace, Regent’s Park. They took the house on a twenty-one year lease, which the eighty year-old composer felt was too short!

In 1952 Vaughan Williams told Ursula that he was writing another Christmas work. This was Hodie (This Day), a cantata for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra. Ursula assisted the composer with the choice of texts, which included George Herbert and — most memorably — Thomas Hardy’s sublime The Oxen. Ursula also contributed to the text, following on from their collaboration, Silence and Music, for the 1953 Garland for the Queen. Hodie was dedicated to Herbert Howells and was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester on 8 September 1954. Howells said: “Nothing has ever touched me more than this dedication.”

Ralph and Ursula had taken a holiday in Italy in 1953 and decided in 1954 to visit America. Vaughan Williams took up a visiting professorship at Cornell University and Keith Falkner, a friend on the faculty at the University, arranged for him to undertake a lecture tour across America. Just before leaving America, Vaughan Williams received the Howland Prize and Medal at Yale University. He was only the third composer to receive this award, following Holst in 1925 and Hindemith in 1940.

Vaughan Williams began his Eighth Symphony in 1953 and finished it in 1955. It was first performed on 2 May 1956 by Sir John Barbirolli, the work’s dedicatee, and the Hallé Orchestra. The symphony has a concentrated energy which shows the eighty-one year-old continuing to experiment both structurally and in terms of orchestral sonorities, in particular using a large supply of extra percussion including, as he put it, “all the ‘phones and ‘spiels known to the composer.” In its lightness of mood this, the shortest of the symphonies, links with the Romance for Harmonica (1952) and the Tuba Concerto (1954). The symphony has an American extroversion reflecting, perhaps, the composer’s recent visit to the USA.

Gerald Finzi’s death in 1956 was a major blow. He had been a close personal friend. In October 1957, a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London celebrated the composer’s eighty-fifth birthday. A poem to mark the occasion by Cecil Day Lewis was read by his actress wife, Jill Balcon, at a party after the concert. Vaughan Williams continued to conduct Bach’s Passions at Dorking. These performances were remembered as a revelation — highly spiritual and moving. The choir were thoroughly rehearsed and the hand-picked soloists knew exactly what Vaughan Williams wanted.

In 1958, Ralph and Ursula visited Naples, where he sat for a portrait by Gerald Kelly. They crossed to Ischia, staying with Sir William Walton and his wife, Susanna. Meanwhile, Vaughan Williams was working on his Ninth Symphony. It was to be his last. The work was initially inspired by Salisbury and the surrounding countryside, including Stonehenge. Tess had spent her last hours with Angel Clare at Stonehenge and the fatalistic influence of Thomas Hardy is felt in this symphony. At the age of eighty-five, Vaughan Williams was contemplating fate and the influence of the “President of the Immortals”. He had originally called the first movement a “Wessex Prelude”, but it soon became the Ninth Symphony, and the programmatic basis of the work was removed. The first performance took place on 2 April 1958 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent. Despite the composer’s age, the symphony shares with its predecessor an unabated flow of new ideas, partly retrospective, but continuing the fascination with new orchestral sonorities, including three saxophones and a flugelhorn. It is a poignant summary of many of his life’s preoccupations. The juxtaposition of moods — noble and tender, violent and barbaric, sardonic and jaunty and, in the end, defiant — captures superbly the astonishing range of his expressiveness heard throughout the symphonies. It is a fitting conclusion to a remarkable cycle.

Vaughan Williams continued to work hard showing astonishing concentration for a man of his age. He set more of Ursula’s poetry in his valedictory Four Last Songs, and was working on a new opera, Thomas the Rhymer. In collaboration with Simona Pakenham, he also wrote a fine Christmas work, The First Nowell.

Relief by McFall

Posthumous relief portrait sculpture by David McFall RA, Church of St Martin, Dorking.
A second cast is at Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey.

Ralph Vaughan Williams died peacefully on 26 August 1958. Despite his age, his death came as a shock to his family and friends who had deemed him invincible. Ursula Vaughan Williams called many close to him in the early hours of the morning to avoid these friends first hearing the news on the BBC news bulletins.

The Funeral Service and Commemoration were held at Westminster Abbey on the 19 September. The Service opened with the beautiful Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, a folk song Vaughan Williams had loved all his life. Sir Adrian Boult conducted. Excerpts from Job and music by his beloved Bach followed. As the casket containing his ashes was carried to the North Aisle, the congregation sang Come down, O love divine to the tune he had called Down Ampney, after the village of his birth back in 1872. For many present, this was the most moving part of the service. Finally, more Vaughan Williams, the sublime O taste and see and The Old Hundredth.

© Stephen Connock MBE
Vice President Ralph Vaughan Williams Society