Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Vaughan Williams in 1919, by William Rothenstein

Ralph Vaughan Williams OM (/ˌrf ˌvɔːn ˈwɪljəmz/;[1] 12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958) was an English composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores. He was also a collector of English folk music and song; this collecting activity influenced both his editorial approach to the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.


Early years[edit]

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father, the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams (1834-1875), was vicar at All Saints Church. The surname Vaughan Williams is an unhyphenated double-barrelled name of Welsh origin. Following his father's death in 1875, he was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan (née Wedgwood) (1842-1937), daughter of Josiah Wedgwood III and the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, a Wedgwood family home in the Surrey Hills. He was also related to the Darwins, Charles Darwin being a great-uncle. Though born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, Vaughan Williams never took it for granted and worked all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals in which he believed.[2]

The Darwin-Wedgwood-Galton family tree, showing Vaughan Williams's relationships to Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood

At the age of six Vaughan Williams began piano and basic composition lessons with his aunt, Sophy Wedgwood. He started playing the violin at the age of seven. In January 1887, at the age of fourteen, he attended Charterhouse School, which was one of the few schools at the time to encourage musical expression.[3] After Charterhouse he attended the Royal College of Music (RCM) under Charles Villiers Stanford. He read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge,[4] where his friends and contemporaries included the philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. He then returned to the RCM and studied composition with Hubert Parry, who became a friend. One of his fellow pupils at the RCM was Leopold Stokowski and during 1896 they both studied organ under Sir Walter Parratt. Stokowski later went on to perform six of Vaughan Williams's symphonies for American audiences, making the first recording of the Sixth Symphony in 1949 with the New York Philharmonic, and giving the U.S. premiere of the Ninth Symphony in Carnegie Hall in 1958.

Another friendship made at the RCM, crucial to Vaughan Williams's development as a composer, was with fellow-student Gustav Holst whom he first met in 1895. From that time onwards they spent several 'field days' reading through, and offering constructive criticism on each other's works in progress.[5]

Vaughan Williams's composition developed slowly and it was not until he was 30 that the song "Linden Lea" became his first publication. He mixed composition with conducting, lecturing, and editing other music, notably that of Henry Purcell and the English Hymnal. He had already taken lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897 and in 1907–1908 took a big step forward in his orchestral style when he studied for three months in Paris with Maurice Ravel.[1]

In 1904 Vaughan Williams discovered English folk songs and carols, which were fast becoming extinct because the oral tradition through which they existed was being undermined by an increase in literacy and the availability of printed music in rural areas. He travelled the countryside, transcribing and preserving many himself. Later, he incorporated some songs and melodies into his own music, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working lives of ordinary people. His efforts did much to raise appreciation of traditional English folk song and melody. Later in his life he served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which, in recognition of his early and important work in this field, named its Vaughan Williams Memorial Library after him. During this time he strengthened his links to prominent writers on folk music, including the Reverend George B. Chambers.[citation needed]

In 1905 Vaughan Williams conducted the first concert of the newly founded Leith Hill Music Festival at Dorking which he was to conduct until 1953, when he passed the baton to his successor, William Cole.[6]

Performed by the U.S. Army Band Strings.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

In 1909 he composed incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play, a stage production at Cambridge University of Aristophanes' The Wasps. The next year, he had his first big public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral) and his choral symphony A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1). He enjoyed a still greater success with A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) in 1914, conducted by Geoffrey Toye.

World Wars[edit]

A statue of Vaughan Williams in Dorking

Vaughan Williams was 41 when World War I began. Though he could have avoided war service entirely, or tried for a commission, he chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer in France and Salonika,[7] he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery on 24 December 1917.[8] On one occasion, though too ill to stand, he continued to direct his battery while lying on the ground.[9] Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of hearing loss which eventually caused severe deafness in old age.[2] In 1918, he was appointed Director of Music, First Army, and this helped him re-adjust to musical life.

After the war, he adopted for a while a somewhat mystical style in Flos Campi, a work for solo viola, small orchestra, and wordless chorus, and in A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3), which draws on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer in that war, including a cadenza for trumpet in the second movement based on a bugler practising and repeatedly hitting a wrong note, a flattened seventh, which Vaughan Williams alludes to in the symphony. The work was premiered on 26 January 1922, in London, with Adrian Boult conducting. From 1924 a new phase in his music began, characterised by lively cross-rhythms and clashing harmonies. Key works from this period are Toccata Marziale, the ballet Old King Cole, the Piano Concerto, the oratorio Sancta Civitas (his favourite of his choral works), and the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing, which is drawn not from the Bible but from William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job. He also composed a Te Deum in G for the enthronement of Cosmo Gordon Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury. This period in his music culminated in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, first played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935. This symphony contrasts dramatically with the "pastoral" orchestral works with which he is associated; indeed, its almost unrelieved tension, drama, and dissonance have startled listeners since it was premiered. Acknowledging that the Fourth Symphony was different, the composer said, "I don't know if I like it, but it's what I meant." Two years later, Vaughan Williams made a historic recording of the work with the same orchestra for HMV (His Master's Voice), his only commercial recording. During this period, he lectured in America and England, and conducted The Bach Choir. He was President of the City of Bath Bach Choir between 1946 and [year?]. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in the King's Birthday Honours of 1935,[10] having previously declined a knighthood.[2] He also gave private lessons in London to students including Irish composer Ina Boyle.[11]

Vaughan Williams was an intimate lifelong friend of the famous British pianist Harriet Cohen. His letters to her reveal a flirtatious relationship, regularly reminding her of the thousands of kisses that she owed him. Before Cohen's first American tour in 1931 he wrote "I fear the Americans will love you so much that they won't let you come back."[12] He was a regular visitor to her home and often attended parties there. Cohen premiered Vaughan Williams's "Hymn Tune Prelude" in 1930, which he dedicated to her. She later introduced the piece throughout Europe during her concert tours. In 1933 she premiered his Piano Concerto in C major, a work which was once again dedicated to her. Cohen was given the exclusive right to play the piece for a period of time. Cohen played and promoted Vaughan Williams's work throughout Europe, the USSR, and the United States.

His music now entered a mature lyrical phase, as in Five Tudor Portraits, Serenade to Music, and Symphony No. 5 in D, which he conducted at the Proms in 1943. Serenade to Music, inspired by a scene from Act Five of The Merchant of Venice and written for orchestra and sixteen vocal soloists, was composed as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood. As he was now 70, many people considered Symphony No. 5 a swan song, but he renewed himself and entered yet another period of exploratory harmony and instrumentation. His very successful Symphony No. 6 of 1946 received a hundred performances in the first year. It surprised both admirers and critics, many of whom suggested that this symphony (especially its last movement) was a grim vision of the aftermath of an atomic war; typically, Vaughan Williams himself refused to recognise any programme behind this work.

It was with the 6th Symphony that his working relationship with Roy Douglas (b. 1907) began, and it continued for the rest of his life. Douglas's job was as musical assistant and amanuensis; it included producing legible copies of Vaughan Williams's scores. In the process of doing so, Douglas identified numerous issues of orchestration needing resolution, deciphered Vaughan Williams's often illegible handwriting, and made various suggestions for improvement, most of which were accepted.[13] Douglas has been described as "the most important surviving witness of Vaughan Williams's technique as a musician".[14]

Later work[edit]

Vaughan Williams plaque in Dorking Parish Church. He founded the Leith Hill Music Festival, with which he kept a lifelong involvement, in 1905.

Before his death in 1958, he completed three more symphonies. His Seventh, Sinfonia Antartica, which was based on his 1948 film score for Scott of the Antarctic, exhibits his renewed interest in instrumentation and sonority. The Eighth Symphony, first performed in 1956, was followed by the much weightier Symphony No. 9 in E minor of 1956–57. This last symphony was initially given a lukewarm reception after its first performance in May 1958, just three months before his death. But this dark and enigmatic work is now considered by many[15] to be a fitting conclusion to his sequence of symphonic works.

He also completed a range of instrumental and choral works, including a Tuba Concerto, An Oxford Elegy on texts of Matthew Arnold, and the Christmas cantata Hodie. He also wrote an arrangement of The Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune for the Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth II. At his death he left an unfinished Cello Concerto, an opera Thomas the Rhymer, and music for a Christmas play, The First Nowell, which was completed by his amanuensis Roy Douglas.

Despite his substantial involvement in church music and the religious subject-matter of many of his works, he was described by his second wife as "an atheist ... [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism."[16] It is noteworthy that in his opera The Pilgrim's Progress he changed the name of the hero from John Bunyan's Christian to Pilgrim. He also set Bunyan's hymn Who would true valour see to music using the traditional Sussex melody "Monk's Gate". For many church-goers, his most familiar composition may be the hymn tune Sine nomine written for the hymn "For All the Saints" by William Walsham How. The tune he composed for the mediaeval hymn "Come Down, O Love Divine" (Discendi, Amor santo by Bianco of Siena, ca.1434) is entitled "Down Ampney" in honour of his birthplace.

He also worked as a tutor for Birkbeck College.[17]

In the 1950s, the composer supervised recordings of all but his Ninth Symphony by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Decca.[18] At the end of the sessions for the mysterious Sixth Symphony, Vaughan Williams gave a short speech, thanking Boult and the orchestra for their performance, "most heartily," and Decca later included this on the LP.[19] He was to supervise the first recording of the Ninth Symphony (for Everest Records) with Boult; his death on 26 August 1958 the night before the recording sessions were to begin provoked Boult to announce to the musicians that their performance would be a memorial to the composer.[20] These recordings, including the speeches by the composer and Boult, have all been reissued by Decca on CD.

Vaughan Williams is a central figure in British music because of his long career as teacher, lecturer, and friend to so many younger composers and conductors. His writings on music remain thought-provoking, particularly his oft-repeated call for all persons to make their own music, however simple, as long as it is truly their own. Vaughan Williams was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.


He was married twice. His first marriage was to Adeline Fisher (daughter of the historian Herbert William Fisher) in 1896. Adeline was cousin of Ruth Fisher de Ropp,[21] who was the mother of Robert S de Ropp. Robert's father, a semi-destitute European nobleman, was unable to pay for his son's post-secondary education. Consequently, Ralph and Adeline Vaughan Williams paid for Robert’s education at the Royal College of Science, in South Kensington, where he eventually specialised in biology and earned a PhD. De Ropp went on to be a successful research scientist and well-known author of books on human potentials.[22] Adeline Fisher Vaughan Williams died in 1951 after many years of suffering from crippling arthritis.

Vaughan Williams had an affair with the married poet Ursula Wood beginning in 1938. After Wood's husband died in 1942, Wood became Ralph's literary advisor and personal assistant and moved into his Surrey home, apparently with the tacit approval of Adeline, for whom Wood served as a carer until Adeline's death in 1951.[23] Wood wrote the libretto to his choral work The Sons of Light, and contributed to that of The Pilgrim's Progress and Hodie.[24] Wood and Vaughan Williams married in 1953, moved to London, and occupied a house at 10 Hanover Terrace, Regents Park, until the composer's death five years later. In 1964 Wood published RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams. She served as honorary president of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society until her death in 2007.


Vaughan Williams's music has often been said to be characteristically English, in the same way as that of Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, and William Walton.[25] In Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd writes, "If that Englishness in music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be: ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless." Ackroyd quotes music critic John Alexander Fuller Maitland, whose distinctions included editing the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in the years just before 1911, as having observed that in Vaughan Williams's style "one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new."

His style expresses a deep regard for and fascination with folk tunes, the variations upon which can convey the listener from the down-to-earth (which he always tried to remain in his daily life) to the ethereal. Simultaneously the music shows patriotism toward England in the subtlest form, engendered by a feeling for ancient landscapes and for a person's small yet not entirely insignificant place within them.[2] His earlier works sometimes show the influence of Maurice Ravel, his teacher for three months in Paris in 1908. Ravel described Vaughan Williams as the only one of his pupils who did not write music like Ravel.[25]



Vaughan Williams enjoyed an extensive recorded legacy. Early recordings of individual symphonies made by Henry Wood (London), John Barbirolli (Fifth), Adrian Boult and Leopold Stokowski (both in the Sixth), and the composer's own recording of the Fourth, preceded several complete cycles. Stokowski's 1943 NBC Symphony broadcast of the Fourth Symphony has also been issued on CD, as has his 1964 Proms performance of the 8th with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sir Eugene Goossens recorded the 1920 edition of A London Symphony with the Cincinnati Orchestra for RCA Victor in 1941, the only recording of that version of the score ever made. Boult taped the first cycle (Symphonies 1–8) for Decca in the early 1950s, completing it with No. 9 for the Everest label in 1958; he re-recorded all nine for EMI between 1967 and 1972. Other cycles have followed from André Previn, Bernard Haitink, Bryden Thomson, Vernon Handley, Leonard Slatkin and Richard Hickox, all recorded by British orchestras, no non-UK cycle having yet been made.

Several other foreign conductors have also recorded individual Vaughan Williams symphonies: Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein both recorded the Fourth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, the same orchestra with which Leopold Stokowski had made the first recording of the Sixth Symphony in 1949. This work was also recorded by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony in 1966. Paavo Berglund also recorded the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies and, among other CD releases, the Portuguese premiere of the Ninth Symphony, with Pedro de Freitas Branco conducting the National Symphony Orchestra of Portugal, has also been issued. Similarly, the US premiere of the Ninth Symphony, given by Leopold Stokowski in Carnegie Hall in 1958 'In Memoriam Vaughan Williams' has also been released on CD by Cala Records.

A first official release of the Symphony No. 5 conducted by the composer in 1952 was recently issued in the U.K. by Somm Recordings.

David Willcocks recorded much of the choral output for EMI in the 1960s and 1970s. Award-winning performances of the string quartets have followed on Naxos, which along with the Hyperion and Chandos labels have recorded much neglected material, including works for brass band and the rarely performed operas.

EMI Classics has issued a budget 30-CD set (34+ hours) with virtually all of Vaughan Williams's works, including alternative settings.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Vaughan Williams, Ursula. (1964) R.V.W. A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford University Press. The preface, Notes on Names, says "Ralph's name was pronounced Rayf, any other pronunciation used to infuriate him."
  2. ^ a b c d Frogley, Alain (September 2004). "‘Williams, Ralph Vaughan (1872–1958)’". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36636. Retrieved 16 January 2008. (subscription required (help)). 
  3. ^ Heffer, p.6
  4. ^ "Vaughan-Williams, Ralph (VHN892R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  5. ^ Heirs and Rebels by Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gustav Holst; Preface, pix
  6. ^ "Leith Hill Music Festival website". Retrieved 14 April 2008. 
  7. ^ "Ralph Vaughan Williams". Famous names in the First World War. The National Archives. Retrieved 3 February 2010. 
  8. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30455. pp. 253–254. 1 January 1918. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  9. ^ Vaughan Williams, Ursula, RVW A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford University Press 1964 p. 130
  10. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 34166. p. 3596. 31 May 1935. Retrieved 16 January 2008.
  11. ^ Foreman, Lewis (1998). Vaughan Williams in perspective: studies of an English composer. 
  12. ^ Fry, Helen (2008). Music and Men, the Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen. The History Press. 
  13. ^ Roy Douglas, Working with Vaughan Williams: Some Newly Discovered Manuscripts
  14. ^ Ralph Vaughan Williams: Uneasy listening, The Telegraph, 5 December 2007
  15. ^ Journal of the Vaughan Williams Society, No. 39, June 2007
  16. ^ Hugh Ottaway/Alain Frogley, "Ralph Vaughan-Williams": Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (subscription required). Retrieved 16 January 2008
  17. ^ Birkbeck, University of London Continuing Education Courses 2002 Entry. Birkbeck External Relations Department. 2002. p. 5. 
  18. ^ The Gramophone
  19. ^ Decca Records/Eclipse reissue
  20. ^ Everest Records' release of the 1958 recording.
  21. ^ "Ruth Fisher". Community Trees. FamilySearch. 28 July 2009. Retrieved 2012-05-31. 
  22. ^ De Ropp, Robert S. 1995/2002 Warrior's Way: a Twentieth Century Odyssey. Nevada City, CA: Gateways
  23. ^ John Bridcut (20 May 2008). "Sonata for three". Daily Mail. Retrieved 19 July 2008. 
  24. ^ "Ursula Vaughan Williams (obituary)". The Times. 25 October 2007. Retrieved 24 October 2007. 
  25. ^ a b [1] Roger S. Gordon, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Film Music, review, Positive Feedback on Line Issue 29, accessed 12 May 2008


  • Vaughan Williams, Ralph; Manning, David. (2008) Vaughan Williams on Music New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-518239-2.
  • Vaughan Williams, Ralph; Holst, Gustav; Vaughan Williams, Ursula (ed.); Holst, Imogen (ed.) (1959) Heirs & Rebels. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Heffer, Simon (2000). Vaughan Williams London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-64398-3.

Further reading[edit]

Giffuni, Cathe, "A Bibliography of the Film Scores of Ralph Vaughan Williams," Music and Musicians, October 1988, Vol 37, No 2.

External links[edit]