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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams, OM (October 12, 1872 August 26, 1958) was an influential British composer. He was a student at the Royal College of Music and Trinity College, Cambridge and served as a lieutenant in World War I. He wrote nine symphonies between 1910 and 1958 as well as numerous other works including chamber music, opera, choral music and film scores.

Biography

Born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father Arthur Vaughan Williams was rector, he was taken by his mother Margaret Susan Wedgwood (18431937), daughter of Josiah Wedgwood III, grandson of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, the Wedgwood family home in the North Downs, after his father's early death in 1875. He was also related to the Darwins, Charles Darwin being a great-uncle. Ralph (pronounced "rafe") was therefore born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, but never took it for granted and worked tirelessly all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals he believed in.

After Charterhouse School he attended the Royal College of Music (RCM) under Charles Villiers Stanford. He read history and music at Cambridge, 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 close friend. His composing 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 further lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin (1897); a big step forward in his orchestral style occurred when he studied in Paris with Maurice Ravel.

In 1904 he discovered English folk songs, which were fast becoming extinct owing to the increase of literacy and printed music in rural areas. He collected many himself and edited them. He also incorporated some into his music, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working lives of ordinary people.

In 1909, he composed incidental music for a stage production at Cambridge University of Aristophanes' The Wasps, and the next year, he had his first big public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1), and a greater success with A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) in 1914, conducted by Geoffrey Toye. Although at 40, and as an ex-public schoolboy, he could easily have avoided war service or been commissioned as an officer, he enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps and had a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer before being commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery. On one occasion he was too ill to stand but continued to direct his battery lying on the ground. Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of loss of hearing which was eventually to cause deafness in old age. In 1918 he was appointed Director of Music, First Army and this helped him adjust back into musical life.

After the war he adopted for a while a profoundly mystical style in the Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) and Flos Campi, a work for viola solo, small orchestra, and wordless chorus. 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 (described as "A Masque for Dancing") which is drawn not from the Bible but from William Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job. This period in his music culminated in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, first played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935. Two years later Vaughan Williams made a historic recording of the work with the same orchestra, one of his very rare commercial recordings. During this period he lectured in America and England, and conducted the Bach Choir and an annual festival at Dorking. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1935.

His music now entered a mature lyrical phase, as in the Five Tudor Portraits; the "morality" The Pilgrim's Progress; the Serenade to Music (a setting of a scene from act five of The Merchant of Venice, for orchestra and sixteen vocal soloists and composed as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood); and the Symphony No. 5 in D, which he conducted at the Proms in 1943. As he was now 70, many people considered it a swan song, but he renewed himself again and entered yet another period of exploratory harmony and instrumentation. Before his death in 1958 he completed four more symphonies, including No. 7 Sinfonia Antartica, based on his 1948 film score for Scott of the Antarctic. 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. 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 (b. 1907). He also wrote an arrangement of The Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune for the Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth II.

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." For many church-goers, his most familiar composition may be the hymn "For All the Saints".

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 everyone to make their own music, however simple, as long as it is truly their own.

He was married twice. His first wife, Adeline Fisher, died in 1951 after many years of suffering from crippling arthritis. In 1953 he married the poet Ursula Wood (b. 1911), whom he had known since the late 1930s and with whom he collaborated on a number of vocal works. Ursula later wrote Vaughan Williams's biography RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, which remains the standard work on his life.

 

Vaughan Williams appears as a character in Robert Holdstock's novel Lavondyss.

Style

Those wanting to know what Vaughan Williams "is like" in some kind of context (without of course listening to the works straight away themselves) could never do better than to consult the chapter "English Music" in the book "Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination" by Peter Ackroyd. In essence, however, this is characteristically English (and British) music forming part of a certain genre alongside works by the likes of Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, William Walton and others.

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 Fuller Maitland, who noted that in Vaughan Williams's style "one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new." What Ackroyd may be referring to is the discernible mixture of some kind of "Art Deco and Art Nouveau in music."

There is in Vaughan Williams often a tangible flavour of Ravel (VW's mentor over a 3-month period spent in Paris in 1908), though not imitation. The great Frenchman himself described VW as "the only one of my pupils who does not write my music."

Vaughan Williams's music expresses a deep regard for and fascination with folk tunes, the variations upon which can convey the listener from the down-to-earth (which VW always tried to remain in his daily life) to that which is ethereal. Simultaneously the music is patriotic of the British Isles in the subtlest form engendered by a feeling for ancient landscapes and a person's small yet not entirely insignificant place within them.

Works

Music for Orchestra

  • Symphony No. 1 A Sea Symphony, a choral symphony on texts by Whitman (1903-1909)
  • In the Fen Country, for orchestra (1904)
  • The Wasps, an Aristophanic suite (1909)
  • Symphony No. 2 A London Symphony (1913)
  • Symphony No. 3 A Pastoral Symphony (1921)
  • Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
  • Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1931-34)
  • Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus (1939)
  • Symphony No. 5 in D (1938-43)
  • Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1946-47)
  • Symphony No. 7 Sinfonia Antartica (1949-52) (based on his music for the film Scott of the Antarctic)
  • Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-55)
  • Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-57)

Music for Solo Instrument(s) and Orchestra

  • The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra (1914)
  • Concerto Accademico for violin and orchestra (1924-25)
  • Flos Campi for viola, wordless chorus and small orchestra (1925)
  • Piano Concerto in C (1926-31)
  • Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932; reorchestration of Piano Concerto in C)
  • Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra (1936-38)
  • Oboe Concerto in A minor, for oboe and strings (1944)
  • Fantasia (quasi varizione) on the Old 104th Psalm Tune (1949)
  • Romance in D flat for harmonica and orchestra (1951) (written for Larry Adler)
  • Tuba Concerto in F minor (1954)

Operas

  • Hugh the Drover / Love in the Stocks (1910-20)
  • Sir John in Love (1924-28), from which comes an arrangement by Ralph Greaves of Fantasia on Greensleeves
  • The Poisoned Kiss (1927-29; revisions 1936-37 and 1956-57)
  • Riders to the Sea (1925-32), from the play by John Millington Synge
  • The Pilgrim's Progress (1909-51), based on John Bunyan's allegory

Ballets

  • Job, a masque for dancing (1930)

Music with Voice(s)

  • Linden Lea, song (1901)
  • The House of Life (1904)
  • Songs of Travel (1904)
  • Toward the Unknown Region, song for chorus and orchestra, setting of Walt Whitman (1906)
  • On Wenlock Edge, song cycle for tenor, piano and string quartet (1909)
  • Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus and orchestra, settings of George Herbert (1911)
  • Mass in G minor for unaccompanied choir (1922)
  • Three Shakespeare songs (1925)
  • Sancta Civitas (The Holy City) oratorio, text mainly from the Book of Revelation (1923-25)
  • Te Deum in G (1928)
  • Dona nobis pacem, text by Walt Whitman (1936)
  • Serenade to Music for sixteen solo voices and orchestra, a setting of Shakespeare (1938)
  • Ten Blake songs (1957)

Chamber/Instrumental Music

  • String Quartet No. 1 in G minor (1908)
  • Phantasy Quintet for 2 violins, 2 violas and cello (1912)
  • Three preludes on Welsh hymn tunes, for organ (1956)
  • String Quartet No. 2 in A minor (1942-44)

Miscellaneous

  • English Folk Songs Suite for brass band (1923)
  • Flourish for Wind Band (1939)
 

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