Vaughan Williams and ambulance

Vaughan Williams is far right. ©Vaughan Williams Foundation

The life and music of Ralph Vaughan Williams
A brief exploration

War and its aftermath

1910 was a remarkable year for the composer. The grave splendour of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was first heard on 6 September at the Three Choirs Festival and made an immediate and lasting impact. Then A Sea Symphony was given its premiere at the Leeds Festival on 12 October. The scale, eloquence and nobility of this moving work showed that an English composer of originality and power had emerged from this Gloucestershire village.

The success of the Tallis Fantasia had led to a new commission from the Three Choirs Festival, this time at Worcester in 1911. Vaughan Williams chose poems from George Herbert for his Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus and orchestra.

George Butterworth had suggested to Vaughan Williams the idea of writing an orchestral symphony and A London Symphony began to take shape. Vaughan Williams described it as a “Symphony by a Londoner”, evoking the contrasting sights and sounds of Edwardian London, including the influence of the Thames and the chimes of Big Ben. The symphony was first performed on 27 March 1914.

Meanwhile. in 1912, Vaughan Williams was introduced to Sir Frank Benson, who was looking for a musician to arrange music and conduct the small orchestra at the 1913 season at Stratford-on-Avon. Ralph was already knowledgeable about Shakespeare and was delighted with this first-hand insight into the theatre world. This was to prove advantageous when Vaughan Williams came to compose his own Shakespeare opera, Sir John in Love, ten years later.

The Lark Ascending, for violin and orchestra, was composed in 1914. In its gentle, untroubled lyricism, it seems to capture the tranquillity of those languid summer days before the outbreak of war on 5 August 1914. Vaughan Williams’ world was soon to change dramatically.


Vaughan Williams in 1915 ©Vaughan Williams Foundation

Vaughan Williams enlisted as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Force on New Year’s Eve, 1914. He signed up for a four-year term at the Duke of York’s HQ in Chelsea. As he was living nearby, this was practical for him. The most likely reason he chose the Field Ambulance was, however, his age — he was forty-two years old.

The composer joined the 2/4th London Field Ambulance, part of the 179th Brigade within the 60th Division. Initial training in England – squad drill, stretcher drill, first aid and lectures on military practice — was rigorous, especially for Vaughan Williams, who had flat feet. There was, however, still time to form a band with Vaughan Williams as conductor.

Vaughan Williams Band

Vaughan Williams is the tall figure at the back

Orders for mobilisation were received on 15 June 1916, and the date set to leave England was Midsummer’s Day, 22 June. Vaughan Williams and his colleagues were heading for Ecoivres, a few miles north-west of Arras, on the slopes of Vimy Ridge.

The British had taken over this sector of the front line in March 1916. Conditions were terrible. Vaughan Williams’ task was to assist in evacuating the wounded from the Neuville St. Vaast area. This terrain was by 1916 largely flattened — nothing stood more than five feet high. The soldiers were surrounded by dead bodies and rats by the million. The men worked in two hour spells. It was dangerous work, the roads almost impassable from shelling. “Never such innocence again” Philip Larkin would write later.

In mid-November, the unit received instructions to transfer to Salonika. This took him away for the time being from the fiercest fighting, and he was soon bored. In March 1917 he applied for a commission and became an officer cadet in the Royal Garrison Artillery, earning his commission as a Second Lieutenant on 23 December 1917. Returning to France in March, he was in the thick of the concluding battles of the war, including the fifth battle of Ypres, during which he was noted for his ability to remain calm under pressure. The Armistice found him still marching towards Germany, but late in December 1918 he was withdrawn from the Army of Occupation and made Director of Music for the First Army, based in Valenciennes, France. He was demobilised on 15 February, 1919.

Vaughan Williams’ activities in peacetime appeared to resume where they had left off in 1914. He was invited to teach at the Royal College of Music, as a Professor of Composition. He recommenced work at the Leith Hill Musical Festival, including leading rehearsals. He took over from Sir Hugh Allen as Musical Director of the Bach Choir, a post he held until 1926. He and his wife, Adeline, moved for a while to Sheringham in North Norfolk where he revised his A London Symphony. He received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music at Oxford in 1919.

In 1914, Vaughan Williams put the finishing touches to his first opera, Hugh the Drover, a work he had begun writing in 1910. It is a romantic ballad with words by Harold Child charting the love-at-first-sight relationship of Hugh and Mary, the constable’s daughter. Vaughan Williams wanted to write a “musical” about English life. It is indeed full of wonderful tunes in Vaughan Williams’ most fresh and lyrical style. It even succeeds in setting a boxing match between Hugh and John the Butcher, to whom Mary was about to be unhappily married. The opera was first publicly performed in 1924, with forces of the British National Opera Company conducted by Malcolm Sargent.

If, with Hugh the Drover, Vaughan Williams reconnected with his beloved world of folk song after the horrors of war, he was also preoccupied by another very different work, which was conceived while he was on active service in France in 1916. A Pastoral Symphony is clearly and expressly linked to the war. Much as with Arthur Bliss’s valedictory work, Morning Heroes, it was a necessary and cathartic work for Vaughan Williams. The composer wrote: “It’s really wartime music — a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset – it’s not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted.” A wordless cantilena for soprano, accompanied only by a drum roll, that opens the fourth movement, is particularly poignant. This lament is followed by a cantabile melody of remarkable expressiveness that seems to bring to the surface all the pain and sorrow of the war.

Another work from the immediate post war period also has moments of great beauty. This is the Mass in G minor for double chorus. For a declared agnostic, Vaughan Williams could set the words of the Mass with conviction and sincerity. As he put it: “There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass.” The work is dedicated to Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers.

Barton Street

Vaughan Williams and Adeline at their home in Barton Street

Whilst working on his Pastoral Symphony, Vaughan Williams had made a setting of part of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The resulting operatic scena was called The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. Vaughan Williams had first set extracts from The Pilgrim’s Progress for a performance at Reigate Priory in 1905, and Bunyan’s work would preoccupy him in one form or another until the early 1950s.

John Bunyan’s sturdy and simple prose, his sincerity and spiritual intensity had appealed to the Vaughan Williams since childhood. In The Pilgrim’s Progress there is a return to the idea of a spiritual journey that had attracted the composer to Whitman in A Sea Symphony. Vaughan Williams’ music to Bunyan has a moving restraint, an inner spirituality, a strength and conviction that shows the composer gripped by the text and responding in always inspired and often ecstatic fashion.

Pilgrim's Progress poster

The Pilgrim’s Progress preoccupied Vaughan Williams almost all his life.
(Image from the University of Sydney).

Vaughan Williams was appointed one of the Vice Presidents of the Folk Song Society in 1921. To the Cambridge branch he dedicated Old King Cole in 1923. Vaughan Williams believed strongly that the country’s inheritance of song and dance should be part of all our lives.

In 1924, Oxford University Press established a Music Department under the twenty-five year-old Hubert Foss. Foss, a musician, became a close advisor and friend of Vaughan Williams. The composer’s long association with OUP began in 1925.

1925 saw the publication of two notable Vaughan Williams works, Flos Campi and Sancta Civitas. Flos Campi, a suite for viola, wordless mixed chorus and small orchestra, was first performed in October 1925. Each movement is headed by a Latin quotation, with English translation, from the Song of Solomon. Despite the Biblical source of the quotations, the work has no ecclesiastical basis. It is indeed a lyrical, sensual yet elusive masterpiece. Sancta Civitas, Vaughan Williams’ only oratorio, was his favourite amongst his choral works. It is concise and complex, with moments of beauty and tenderness. The entry of the tenor solo at the end of the work to the words “Behold, I come quickly; I am the bright and the morning star” is one of the composer’s most inspired passages. Elgar said to Vaughan Williams after one performance “I once thought of setting those words, but I shall never do that now, and I am glad I didn’t because you have done it for me.”

Vaughan Williams also returned to hymn music, becoming joint musical editor with Martin Shaw of Songs of Praise, published in 1926. The composer contributed two more original hymns, and thirty of his arrangements were also included. He was joint editor, too, for the Oxford Book of Carols, published in 1928. He contributed four original carols to this volume, including the lovely Wither’s Rocking Hymn.

The decade ended with Vaughan Williams’ opera Sir John in Love, based upon Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Showing great insight into Shakespeare and the English lyric poets, he interpolates into his libretto extracts from various Shakespeare plays and Elizabethan poems, including Ben Jonson’s gorgeous See the chariot at hand here of love, wherein my Lady rideth. Vaughan Williams’ interpretation is highly romantic, full of wonderful melodies, but also high spirited and endearing. The characters are better developed than in Hugh the Drover. Vaughan Williams also includes many of his favourite folk-songs, including the delightful Greensleeves which opens Act 3. The opera ends optimistically:

Whether men do laugh or weep,
Whether they do wake or sleep,
Whether they die young or old,
Whether they feel heat or cold,
There is underneath the sun,
Nothing in true earnest done.

The composer seems at last to have exorcised the ghosts of the Great War.

Sir Geoffrey Keynes, Blake scholar and eminent surgeon, had acquired a copy of Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job in 1927. A ballet enthusiast as well as an expert on Blake, he saw in the groupings and gestures of the Blake illustrations the potential for dramatic music. Keynes turned to his sister-in-law, Gwen Raverat, who was also Vaughan Williams’ cousin, for design help. They then chose Vaughan Williams as composer since he was felt to be sympathetic to Blake’s symbolism and individuality. As a family friend, he was also accessible. Vaughan Williams was fired by enthusiasm for a ballet on Job, though he had a great dislike for dancing “on points”. Job became A Masque for Dancing rather than a ballet. The work was first performed in a full orchestral version at the Norwich Festival in 1930. Geoffrey Keynes remained hopeful of a staging and a toy mock-up had been designed by Gwen Raverat to illustrate the dramatic possibilities. Ninette de Valois and Lilian Baylis were impressed and with the help of the newly formed Camargo Society, Job was produced at the Cambridge Theatre in London in July 1931. By all accounts, Anton Dolin as Satan and Stanley Judson as Elihu were both superb. Job unites the different aspects of Vaughan Williams’ musical style: dramatic, lyrical, visionary and pastoral, to brilliant effect.

Sir Adrian Boult conducting ‘Job’

© Stephen Connock MBE
Vice President Ralph Vaughan Williams Society