Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Glow Of Tradition

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872, the son of a minister. He studied music at the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge, from which he eventually received a D.Mus. Perhaps his most important compositional study was with Maurice Ravel. He went to Ravel not in order to bring back to England the French style—English music had been overwhelmed with Continental influence ever since Handel moved there in the eighteenth century—but to correct what seemed to him an insufficient musical technique.

Meanwhile his own sense of Englishness, nurtured by his discovery of and consequent involvement with English folk music, had fused with a highly individual style which, for the first time since Purcell (1659–95), brought England back to an indigenous musical language. This can be called nationalism, not because of a superficial overlay of folk tunes but because the composer belonged to a heritage that merged with his own individual vision.

In addition to a prolific output of operas, ballets, incidental music, film scores, church music, choral works, songs, ensemble and solo music, concerti, and symphonies, Vaughan Williams co-edited the very important Oxford Book of Carols and was music editor of the English Hymnal (1906).

In Vaughan Williams’s life and music there is a pleasant congruence. One sees a whole man, profoundly humane and unpretentious, a shepherd of the aesthetic needs of the amateur and the artist. In Working With R. V. W., Roy Douglas’s description of his uprightness is a balm to those who have been inhibited by the legends of artistic hauteur and hypothetical perfectionism. We see in Vaughan Williams a man fighting deafness, needing the help of others, seeking technical advice and responding quite often with revisions. He had that rare quality of taking himself with a grain of salt. His irrepressible humor comes out in his music—listen to the Scherzo of his Eighth Symphony—and in the delightful program notes he often furnished. From those he wrote for his Ninth Symphony:

The saxophones … are not expected, except possibly in one place in the scherzo, to behave like demented cats, but are allowed to be their own romantic selves.

Further on:

G major is reached. The correct key for the second subject at last; but, oh dear, it is not a new subject at all but a version developed and extended. Never mind, Haydn often does much the same, and what is good enough for the master is good enough for the man.


The second movement … seems to have no logical connection between its various themes. This has led some people to think it must have a programme since apparently programme music need not be logical. It is quite true that this movement started off with a programme, but it got lost on the journey—so now, oh no, we never mention it—and the music must be left to speak for itself—whatever that may mean.
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And so it does, often masterfully.

Vaughan Williams is one of the few major recent composers a large part of whose music was for the church. This is the more enticing because his output ranged all the way from hymn tunes and arrangements to expansive choral and instrumental works. He had a lifelong affection for amateur choirs and liked to have them perform his works. He possessed a mobile integrity, that rare capability of writing simple music of unquestioned excellence: hymn tunes such as Sine Nomine or King’s Weston, the quietly elegant organ prelude on Rhosymedre, or the dignified setting of Old Hundredth, for instruments, chorus and congregation, prepared for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. His songs, for example those extracted from his opera Pilgrim’s Progress, the Five Mystical Songs, or On Wenlock Edge, demonstrate his skill in vocal line coupled with a distinct textural and harmonic sense.

His love for the hymn tune and for congregational singing is shown in the compositions that combine the latter with chorus and instruments, as in the strong setting of Miles Lane (“All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”). Then there is the unduly neglected Fantasiaon Old 104th, for piano, orchestra and chorus, which again brings the hymnic tradition to bear, this time in the company of the instrumental concerto. The Mass in G Minor for solo quartet and double chorus is a synthesis of the constraint of chant and the tracery of Renaissance polyphony. As churchly as these and others of his compositions are, they are not out of place in the concert hall. And this has always been the mark of great sacred music.

Finally, a word about his symphonies. They run a wide stylistic gamut. To his last day (he composed steadily up to his death in 1958), Vaughan Williams was searching. The Eighth and Ninth Symphonies utilize unusual instruments: the flügelhorn, saxophones, vibraphone, xylophone, and gong; the Sinfonia Antarctica, originally a film score for Scott of the Antarctic, makes use of a wind machine, wordless female chorus, and pipe organ. In addition he composed a concerto for tuba as well as the Romance for Harmonica, Strings and Piano. He was constantly searching out ways of reshaping musical form, but always within a classic-romantic framework. The Scherzo of the Eighth Symphony starts out properly but ends up foreshortened; yet it is musically right. The first movement of the same work is a set of variations without a theme. His nine symphonies range from a pastoral romanticism, as in his third, to the angry, clashing arguments of the ninth. To be sure there is a single Vaughan Williams, but the listener must be sure he has heard him out, for within his supposed conservatism there are rich and variegated excursions.

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A conservative always runs a risk. Yet what is a conservative but one who sees something newly individual to say within a tradition thought by others to be exhausted? Those who strike out on new paths have no different artistic responsibility, for they too must say something new. The difference is not so great after all, for each must speak individually despite procedural variances.

Creative history has never been without these overlays. While Bach exhausted one tradition, his contemporaries set out on another, and we have learned to love them both. In this century, too, Vaughan Williams, among others, was freshening an older tradition while Stravinsky, among others, set out on a new. We must not overlook the glow of the one for the dazzle of the other, but reach out for both. In this way we truly celebrate creativity and therefore each artistry, of which Ralph Vaughan Williams is a singular example.

HAROLD M. BESTHarold M. Best is director of the Conservatory of Music, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

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