Aask people about Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose 150th birthday we are celebrating this year, and you might be told either that he is by far Britain’s favorite composer, or that he is an embarrassed man whose music sounds like “a cow peering over a door” (to quote one reviewer). Both judgments are usually based on just two tracks: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending, which have appeared at or near the top of the Classic FM Hall of Fame poll for 20 years. In 1958, the last year of his life, he was unquestionably the great old man of English music, but his last major work, the Ninth Symphony – in my opinion a masterpiece – has been called old-fashioned by many reviews.
Vaughan Williams, whose 150th birthday we celebrate this year, has always been in and out of fashion. Many listeners have an “a-ha” moment, whether it’s enlightenment or rejection. Mine, the first, took place while listening to his fifth symphony. Written during the dark days of 1942, it left its audience speechless, in tears and grateful for its message of peace and hope. But I knew none of this when, as a teenage virgin, I put the needle on LP and within seconds – a low hum in the strings, two visionary horns, dreamy violins – I was hooked. It won’t make much sense if you haven’t heard it. So take a moment out of your busy day. If the first minute of the symphony isn’t your thing, listen to the very last one, a silent hallelujah the equivalent of which is heard at the gates of heaven. If you’re still not charmed, keep reading. There are many sides to Vaughan Williams, as I quickly discovered.
The course of my love did not go smoothly. I grew impatient in front of the Pastoral Symphony (No. 3), staring into the empty eyes of this cow, then I fled in fear of the fourth Symphony which assailed my tender ears. I hear the two differently now. La Pastorale is a requiem for young men lost during the First World War, some of them friends and pupils of the composer. It was conceived on long, quiet evenings in northern France as the sun set over the battlefields where Vaughan Williams served as a paramedic. He witnessed things, like so many others, of which he was never to speak, except perhaps in music. The fourth symphony I hear now as an expression of post-war rage, dissonant from start to finish, a hellish gate that might please my previously unimpressed reader.
Vaughan Williams was slow to find his own musical voice. In his student days, England still looked to Germany for musical role models – Mendelssohn and Brahms – so it was his harmony teacher’s despair when samples of minuets came out modal. (Think of Fred Astaire in clogs.) From his late thirties, however, it evolved into a one-man musical institution. He edited the Anglican hymnal The English Hymnal, scoured country pubs collecting folksongs, was active in the English Folk Dance Society, although a bit of a gallop himself, and led choirs amateurs and professional orchestras with passion and sometimes a fit of anger. As World War II drew to a close, he was the one the authorities turned to for “A Song of Thanksgiving,” to be ready for VE Day. And he was a beloved teacher who supported young composers financially and in other practical ways. One day he had to bring an orchestra to heel which openly made fun of a then unknown young Benjamin Britten. Perhaps most importantly, he established what is now the RVW Charitable Trust which still distributes its royalties to fund new works. Having never had children of his own, these beneficiaries are indeed his musical heirs.
English through and through, Vaughan Williams was steeped in the literature and art of his country, old and new. He’s set lyrics by Housman and Kipling, Shakespeare (try the Serenade to music from The Merchant of Venice) and Herbert (Five Mystical Songs‘s Love welcomed me – you’ll thank me!), and there’s a opera on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The closing scene of HG Wells’ Tono-Bungay inspired the atmospheric ending to A London Symphony (“Light after light goes out…London passes – England passes”) and this ninth symphony “at the old” was triggered by Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. You can even hear the eight o’clock chimes marking the time of Tess’ execution.
The screenplay and music for Job, a Dance Mask (not a ballet – he disliked “overdeveloped calves”) were closely based on William Blake’s illustrations of the Book of Job, and the hall of the famous Tallis Fantasia is Gothic architecture in music. Vaughan Williams confessed that he himself sometimes did not know whether he had composed a piece or simply remembered it. He compared the process to seeing Stonehenge, New York or Niagara Falls for the first time: it was as if he already knew them. The Tallis Fantasia sounds as if the musicians were reading not sheet music but runes engraved on the rock.
For some, however, the very anglicism of Vaughan Williams can be an obstacle to appreciation. I’ve had the chance to perform his music outside the UK and see how it touches and speaks to musicians and audiences who know nothing of his cultural roots. The most common reaction to hearing one of the symphonies is a kind of puzzled appetite for more: how many of these are the? Why didn’t we already know them? And I owe a debt of thanks to Vaughan Williams. Ten years ago, the North German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra asked me to become their conductor as a direct result of a performance of the Sixth Symphony – a devastating piece completed shortly after World War II. world. Listen to its post-apocalypse ending, 10 minutes of near-silent, static music (and spare a thought for the orchestras playing this shatteringly difficult piece).
The cultural roots are deep and ancient. Dig deep enough, as Vaughan Williams did, and you’ll find the music’s tangled roots, shared even with other cultures, on a bedrock of pentatonics, old modes, hymns, chorales and folk dancing. . Perhaps that is why Vaughan Williams had so much respect for Sibelius, the great Finnish composer to whom he dedicated this marvelous fifth symphony ‘without permission’. Their music sounds and feels totally different, but they both tapped into the same deep cultural vein. And it is for this reason that I believe the music of Vaughan Williams has endured in our estimation and will endure for a long time, even though fashions come and go. Calling the Ninth Symphony “old hat” was considered an insult. However, I hear the piece as the summary of a life’s work, perhaps tired but rightly so after such a long and rich creativity.