Vaughan WIlliams conducting
Vaughan Williams conducting his 5th Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall

Vaughan Williams as Conductor


Vaughan Williams was a regular conductor, mainly of his own works but also of those of others.  He even wrote the entry on “Conducting” for a new edition of Grove’s Dictionary in 1904. He wrote that “ideal qualities of a conductor include the power of grasping a composer’s true meaning, that of impressing himself on the members of the orchestra, and that indefinable power of giving life to music which belongs to all great players and conductors.”

He adjudicated at many competitive musical competitions which often included one or more concerts, generally comprising the test pieces, so he conducted a broad range of works.  Though not adjudicating, he also conducted concerts at the Leith Hill Musical Festival from 1905 to 1953.

While he conducted his own works, especially the symphonies, up and down the country, the works that were of special importance to him were the ‘Passions’ of J S Bach, and the Mass in B minor. He conducted the great St. Matthew Passion in Dorking every year, and we are privileged to have a recording of the last time he conducted it in 1958 (see below).

In 1947, he made his own translation of the Mass in B Minor for Leith Hill, making exact use of the English Prayer Book liturgy, and the Daily Telegraph commented that he carried it out with very infrequent alteration of Bach’s note values.

Recently (2023), a number of ‘live’ archive recordings have been issued on the SOMM label; these excellent transfers have been well received, and add considerably to the amount of material generally available. Volumes 1, 2 and 4 of SOMM’s series include rarely-heard performances directed by Malcolm Sargent, Adrian Boult and others.  Vaughan Williams is the conductor on Volume 3, where we can hear the following:

Ralph Vaughan Williams Live, Vol. 3

Symphony No. 2 (A London Symphony) with the LSO at the 1946 Proms
Symphony No. 5 with the LPO, the 1943 premiere
Symphony No. 5 with the LPO, 1952

These recordings were taken from broadcast performances, and there are breaks when a new disc had to be put into the recorder.  Despite the gaps, this album is a fascinating record.


VW Live vol 3 SOMM

The excerpts below include that 1958 St Matthew Passion, an earlier transfer of the 1952 Fifth Symphony broadcast and a recording of Dona Nobis Pacem from 1936.

St Matthew Passion, Dorking 1958

Like Bach, VW was a great believer in music made for and made by ordinary people. Recorded in 1958, the year of VW’s death, by Gerald Finzi’s son Christopher and Noel Taylor, this is a uniquely important recording. Lots of coughing and poor recording cannot disguise a moving interpretation of what VW considered along with Bach’s B minor Mass, was the finest music ever written. An amateur Leith Hill Choir with the help of outstanding soloists Wilfrid Brown and John Carol Case.

Vaughan Williams conducting his 5th Symphony, Royal Albert Hall, 1952

The symphony was first performed in June 1943 (at the height of the blitz) but this recording captures a later performance in September 1952.

London Philharmonic Orchestra Conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams

Dona Nobis Pacem

Recorded in November 1936.

BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, Soloists: Renee Flyn, Roy Henderson. Conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams.