Ralph Vaughan Williams

The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was a proponent of nationalism in music and was active in reviving the English folk song.

The son of a clergyman, Ralph Vaughan Williams was born at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire on Oct. 12, 1872. He attended the Royal College of Music and then took music degrees at Trinity College, Cambridge University. He studied in Berlin with Max Bruch (1896-1897). On his return to England, Vaughan Williams served as organist and choirmaster in several churches and was a teacher of composition at the Royal College of Music.

In 1904 Vaughan Williams joined the English Folk Song Society, and for several years he was active in collecting and arranging old English melodies. He also became familiar with the music of William Byrd and Henry Purcell, English composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. The modal melodies of the folk songs and the free rhythms and smooth counterpoint of the early composers became important elements of Vaughan Williams's compositions.

The Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis for string quartet and double string orchestra (1908, revised 1913) is one of Vaughan Williams's most important early compositions. With this piece English music shook off 2 centuries of German domination and tapped a rich source of indigenous music. The cool modal harmonies and antiphonal string writing contrast strongly with the lush, feverish music that was being composed in France and Germany at this time. The London Symphony (1914) is another important piece in Vaughan Williams's development. Its sprightly rhythms and street tunes, the impressionist evocation of autumn mist on the Thames in the second movement, the chimes of Big Ben at the end—all this was new in 20th-century English music.

Vaughan Williams continued to write symphonies throughout his life; the last, his Ninth, was written shortly before his death when he was 86. In these works one can follow the composer's steady development. The Fourth (1935) and Sixth (1948) symphonies are perhaps his strongest, and most dissonant, statements.

Vocal music, both solo and choral, also played an important role in Vaughan William's output. Early in his career he edited and contributed to the English Hymnal (1906). His setting of A. E. Housman's poems, On Wenlock Edge, for tenor and string quartet (1909) is frequently performed, as is his Mass in G Minor for double a cappella chorus (1923). His operas include Hugh the Drover (1911-1914), which incorporates folk songs, and Sir John in Love (1929), based on Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. In the latter work Vaughan Williams used the Elizabethan song "Greensleeves, " which helped to make it one of the most familiar "folk" tunes of the 20th century.

Although he did not follow the newer trends and musical fashions of his day, Vaughan Williams created a thoroughly original style based on English folk music, 16th-and 17th-century polyphony, and informal music of his own times, including jazz. He stated his credo as a composer in his book National Music (1934): "Music is above all things the art of the common man … the art of the humble….What the ordinary man will expect from the composer is not cleverness, or persiflage, or an assumed vulgarity … he will want something that will open to him the 'magic casements.' … The art of music above all other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation … any community of people who are spiritually bound together by language, environment, history and common ideals, and, above all, a continuity with the past." He died in London on Aug. 26, 1958.

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Further Reading on Ralph Vaughan Williams

The fullest account of Vaughan Williams's life is by his widow, Ursula Vaughan Williams, R. V. W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1964). Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1964), is a thorough study of the compositions. Hubert Foss, Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Study (1950), and Alan E. F. Dickinson, Vaughan Williams (1963), discuss the composer's life and works.

Additional Biography Sources

Day, James, Vaughan Williams, London: Dent, 1975.

Foss, Hubert J. (Hubert James), Ralph Vaughan Williams; a study, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press 1974.

Mellers, Wilfrid Howard, Vaughan Williams and the vision of Albion, London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1989.

Vaughan Williams, Ursula, R.V.W.: a biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Vaughan Williams in Dorking: a collection of personal reminiscences of the composer Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, O.M., Dorking: The Group, 1979.