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Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams

born: 12 October 1872
died: 26 August 1958
country: United Kingdom

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, the son of a parson, and the grandson of the celebrated Judge Sir Edward Vaughan Williams, on his father’s side, and Josiah Wedgwood III on his mother’s. His father died when he was only three and consequently his formative years were spent with his mother’s family at Leith Hill Place near Dorking, the country home of the Wedgwoods. A string player—indeed a viola player—from an early age, he went to Charterhouse school when he was fifteen, later to the Royal College of Music, and then to Cambridge to read history. Subsequently he studied with Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel, so that, far from emerging from a narrow background, Vaughan Williams had one of the broadest-based educations of any British composer of his generation.

Vaughan Williams took many years finding the voice by which we now recognize him, his achievement only now fully realized as his early music—finished and in many ways impressive—is played again. The appearance of the Songs of Travel and the song Linden Lea in the early 1900s signalled his growing following as a composer, while his reputation was further enhanced as a consequence of his editing The English Hymnal (published in 1906). He collected his first folksong in 1903 and his first surviving orchestral score to use such tunes came the following year: the ‘symphonic impression’ In the Fen Country. Nevertheless, some years ago an American performance of his very early five-movement Serenade in A major (1898), a work pre-dating his documented collecting of folksongs, surprised many by its folksong flavour. He was not seen as a British composer of individuality and stature much before he was forty, but with the appearance of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and A Sea Symphony in 1910, and A London Symphony in 1914, that dramatically changed.

It has often been noted that Vaughan Williams’s self-confessed agnosticism was ambivalent, masking a contemplative visionary sensibility. He possessed an intimate knowledge of the King James Bible and of five hundred years of English literature, including poets as varied as the Metaphysicals and the American Walt Whitman, and especially Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Such sources are anthologized in his many choral works, these poets providing him with a vocabulary to articulate his deeply humanitarian ethos. He drew upon two hundred years of nonconformist tradition to find unique expression in works ranging from A Sea Symphony and Five Mystical Songs to The Pilgrim’s Progress, the latter the preoccupation of a lifetime.

from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2011

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