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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams



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Published by Johnny Watt
An insight into the life and works of one of England's most important and prolific composers.
An insight into the life and works of one of England's most important and prolific composers.

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Published by: Johnny Watt on Feb 05, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Ralph Vaughan Williams was an Englishcomposer of symphonies, chamber music,opera, choral music, and film scores. Hewas also a collector of 
English folkmusic and song
; this also influenced hiseditorial approach to the English Hymnal,which began in 1904, many folk songarrangements being set as hymn tunes, inaddition to several original compositions.
Early years
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12October 1872 in Down Ampney,Gloucestershire, where his father, the Rev.Arthur Vaughan Williams, was vicar.Following his father's death in 1875 hewas taken by his mother, Margaret SusanWedgwood (1843–1937), the great-granddaughter of the potter 
, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, the Wedgwood familyhome in the North Downs. He was also related to the Darwins, CharlesDarwin being a great-uncle. Though born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, Vaughan Williams never took it for granted and worked all hislife for the democratic and egalitarian ideals in which he believed.As a student he had studied piano, "which I never could play, and the violin,which was my musical salvation." After Charterhouse School he attended theRoyal College of Music (RCM) under 
Charles Villiers Stanford
. He readhistory and music at Trinity College, Cambridge where his friends andcontemporaries included the philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell.He then returned to the RCM and studied composition with Hubert Parry, whobecame a friend. One of his fellow pupils at the RCM was Leopold Stokowskiand during 1896 they both studied organ under Sir Walter Parratt. Stokowskilater went on to perform six of Vaughan Williams's symphonies for Americanaudiences, making the first recording of the Sixth Symphony in 1949 with theNew York Philharmonic, and giving the U.S. premiere of the Ninth Symphonyin Carnegie Hall in 1958.Vaughan Williams's composition developed slowly and it was not until he was30 that the song
"Linden Lea"
became his first publication. He mixedcomposition with conducting, lecturing and editing other music, notably that of Henry Purcell and the English Hymnal. He had further lessons with Max Bruchin Berlin in 1897 and later took a big step forward in his orchestral style whenhe studied in Paris with
Maurice Ravel
In 1904, Vaughan Williams discovered
English folk songs
, which were fastbecoming extinct owing to the increase of literacy and printed music in ruralareas. He travelled the countryside,
transcribing and preserving
manyhimself. Later he incorporated some
songs and melodies into his ownmusic
, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its anonymous historyin the working lives of ordinary people. His efforts did much to raiseappreciation of traditional English folk song and melody. Later in his life heserved as president of the
English Folk Dance and Song Society
(EFDSS),which, in recognition of his early and important work in this field, named itsVaughan Williams Memorial Library after him.In 1905, Vaughan Williams conducted the first concert of the newly foundedLeith Hill Music Festival at Dorking which he was to conduct until 1953, whenhe passed the baton to his successor, William Cole.In 1909, he composed incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play, a stageproduction at Cambridge University of Aristophanes' The Wasps. The nextyear, he had his first big public successes conducting the premieres of the
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
(at The Three Choirs Festival inGloucester Cathedral) and his choral symphony
A Sea Symphony
(Symphony No. 1). He enjoyed a still greater success with A LondonSymphony (Symphony No. 2) in 1914, conducted by Geoffrey Toye.
Two World Wars
Vaughan Williams was 41 whenWorld War I erupted. Though hecould either have avoided war service entirely, or have tried for acommission he chose to enlist as aprivate in the Royal Army MedicalCorps. After a gruelling time as astretcher bearer he wascommissioned in the Royal GarrisonArtillery. On one occasion, thoughtoo ill to stand, he continued to directhis battery while lying on the ground.Prolonged exposure to gunfire begana process of hearing loss whicheventually caused severe deafnessin old age. In 1918, he wasappointed
Director of Music, FirstArmy
and this helped him adjustback into musical life.After the war, he adopted for a while a somewhat mystical style in
A PastoralSymphony
(Symphony No. 3), which draws on his experiences as anambulance volunteer in that war; and
Flos Campi
, a work for viola solo, smallorchestra, and wordless chorus.
From 1924 a new phase in his music
, characterized by lively
cross-rhythms and clashing harmonies
. Keyworks from this period are Toccata marziale, the ballet Old King Cole, thePiano Concerto, the oratorio Sancta Civitas (his favourite of his choral works)and the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing, which is drawn not from the Biblebut from William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job. He also composed aTe Deum in G for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury.
This period in his music culminated in the Symphony No. 4in F
minor, first played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935. Thissymphony contrasts dramatically with the "pastoral" orchestral works withwhich he is associated; indeed, its almost unrelieved tension, drama, anddissonance have startled listeners since it was premiered. Acknowledging thatthe fourth symphony was different, the composer said, "I don't know if I like it,but it's what I mean." Two years later, Vaughan Williams made a historicrecording of the work with the same orchestra for HMV (His Master's Voice),his only commercial recording. During this period, he lectured in America andEngland, and conducted the Bach Choir. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in the King's Birthday Honours of 1935, having previously declined aknighthood.Vaughan Williams was an intimate life long friend of the famous British pianistHarriet Cohen. His letters to her reveal a flirtatious relationship, regularlyreminding her of the thousands of kisses that she owed him. Before Cohen'sfirst American tour in 1931 he wrote "I fear the Americans will love you somuch that they won't let you come back." He was a regular visitor to her homeand often attended parties there. Cohen premiered Vaughan Williams' "
HymnTune Prelude
" in 1930 which he dedicated to her. She later introduced thepiece throughout Europe during her concert tours. In 1933 she premiered his
Concerto in C major 
for pianoforte and orchestra, a work which was onceagain dedicated to her. Cohen was given the exclusive right to play the piecefor a period of time. Cohen played and promoted Vaughan William’s workthroughout Europe, the USSR, and the United States.His music now entered a
mature lyrical phase
, as in the Five Tudor Portraits;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 tothe conductor Sir Henry Wood); and the Symphony No. 5 in D, which heconducted at the Proms in 1943. As he was now 70, many people consideredit a swan song, but he renewed himself again and entered yet
another periodof exploratory harmony and instrumentation
. His very successfulSymphony No. 6 of 1946 received a hundred performances in the first year. Itsurprised both admirers and critics, many of whom suggested that thissymphony (especially its last movement) was a grim vision of the aftermath of an atomic war: typically, Vaughan Williams himself refused to recognise anyprogram behind this work.
Late Harvest

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