Much like Henry Purcell and Sir Edward Elgar before him, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a pioneer and a summation of the era in which lived. He exemplified “British” music in the twentieth century, with its mixture of folk elements and new innovations from Europe. While he came from well-to-do parents, Vaughan Williams was a social progressive for all of his life, desiring to have people of all musical abilities enjoy making music; many of his works were conceived with the musical amateur in mind. Nevertheless, he is best known for his stirring symphonies and choral music, much of which has been performed and recorded numerous times. In addition, Vaughan Williams wrote songs, chamber music, and opera. In fact, he tried his hand at every conceivable genre with a great deal of critical acclaim.
Vaughan Williams was born on October 12, 1872, at Down Ampney, in Gloucestershire, the area in which Edward Elgar and Herbert Howells spent much time and found inspiration. His father was a vicar who died when Vaughan Williams was three. Vaughan Williams started piano lessons at an early age with his aunt and composed his first work at the age of six. He was fortunate that his musical abilities were noticed early and encouraged throughout his student years. He continued his education at the Charterhouse public school, and it was here that his views on organized religion were formed. While Vaughan Williams always confessed that he was a “cheerful agnostic,” he nevertheless read and knew the Bible intimately. It is clear that the literary qualities of the Scriptures affected his work deeply.
After graduation, Vaughan Williams attended the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with C. Hubert Parry. After two years he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read history and music. He returned to the R.C.M. in 1895 as a pupil of C. V. Stanford and became friends with intellectuals of many backgrounds. He also began his lifelong friendship with fellow student Gustav Holst at this time. At the end of the nineteenth century, both Vaughan Williams and Holst were determined to find a uniquely English style of composition, apart from Continental influences. During this period, Vaughan Williams was introduced to Adeline Fisher, the daughter of friends of his parents. Ralph and Adeline grew very fond of each other and married in June of 1897.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, after Vaughan Williams had earned a doctorate, his compositions began to be published, especially songs. To earn money, he taught and wrote articles for various music journals. His first important job was as music editor of The English Hymnal, a project that took two years of his time to complete. Two of his most famous hymns were written at this time: Sine nomine (“For all the Saints”) and Down Ampney (“Come Down, O Love Divine). His other big project in the early 1900s was a collection of folk songs. Vaughan Williams had a keen interest in the native tunes of his country and believed that they would help supply ideas for a national style of classical music. Hymn tunes and folk songs, in addition to Vaughan Williams’s sense of evolving style, contributed to a few minor masterpieces such as In the Fen Country and the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1. Nevertheless, Vaughan Williams felt that something was missing in his compositions, so he went to Paris to study with Maurice Ravel (1875–1937). So effective was this study that on his return to England he began to write music of originality and power in a style that became unmistakably his. Thus, the G minor String Quartet, the Shropshire Lad song-cycle, On Wenlock Edge, and the great Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis were all composed between 1908 and 1910. It was now evident that Vaughan Williams had become the leader of the post-Elgar generation of British composers.
At the outbreak of World War I, Vaughan Williams joined the Army at the age of forty-two and served in France and Salonika. During his time at the Front, he kept a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress in the inside pocket of his uniform. Upon his return to civilian life he gave voice to his experiences of the war in the introspective A Pastoral Symphony, originally sketched in France in 1916. It was at this time that Vaughan Williams wrote the one-act opera The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. This first result of Vaughan Williams’s continuing interest in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was incorporated in 1951 into the opera (or “morality”) of that name. Also written after the Great War was the Mass in G minor, an a cappella work that shows his great love for the music of the Tudor era in its formal polyphony.
In 1925, Vaughan Williams completed the oratorio Sancta Civitas. It is evident that the war profoundly affected Vaughan Williams; works that he started before the War, such as the opera Hugh the Drover, contrast strongly with the depth of Sancta Civitas. More operas followed in the years leading up to World War II, and in 1942 upon his seventieth birthday he wrote what is possibly his finest symphony, the Fifth. While there were many more compositions to follow, including four symphonies, none captures the imagination and finds Vaughan Williams at the peak of his powers as his Fifth Symphony. The years following World War II found Vaughan Williams occupied with finishing The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was finally produced at Covent Garden in 1951.
In the meantime, Adeline Vaughan Williams had become increasingly debilitated with arthritis, and Vaughan Williams had become romantically involved with Ursula Wood, a writer and poet. It was Wood that Vaughan Williams turned to for help in revising Pilgrim’s Progress after its unsuccessful premiere. Since Adeline’s death and the premiere of the opera occurred almost simultaneously, one can surmise that Vaughan Williams was quite distracted at the time of preparations for the premiere of the opera. Nevertheless, Adeline’s death was like a shadow being lifted, and, amazingly, Vaughan Williams spent the last seven years of his life as a remarkably active composer and lecturer. Until his life’s end on August 26, 1958, Vaughan Williams was composing fresh masterpieces such as his last three symphonies and numerous songs. His ashes were interred near the graves of Purcell and Stanford in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey.
Vaughan Williams’s musical creed was that “every composer cannot expect to have a worldwide message, but he may reasonably expect to have a special message for his own people.” Like Benjamin Britten, who followed him forty years later, Vaughan Williams was especially enthused by young people and strongly encouraged their musical growth. Perhaps Vaughan Williams’s personality is best summed up by his late biographer Michael Kennedy: “[He was] that extremely English product, the natural nonconformist, with a conservative regard for the best tradition.” In this way his many compositions sit squarely in the great constructs of past eras while putting forth a fresh view of harmony and melody emanating from his love of native folksong.