Ralph Vaughan Williams

(12 October 1872 - 26 August 1958)

Vaughan Williams was the most important English composer of his generation and was the key figure in the 20th century revival of British music. He composed an impressive array of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music and film scores and collected and arranged many English folk songs.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire in England, where his father was the vicar at All Saints Church. After his father’s death, when Vaughan Williams was three years old, he went to live in the Surrey Hills. Vaughan Williams’s great-uncle was Charles Darwin. Vaughan Williams began learning piano at the age of six and was accepted to the Royal College of Music in London after his school education and also read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge. At the Royal College of Music, Vaughan Williams befriended Gustav Holst.

In 1897, he took lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin and in 1907-8 he studied for three months with Ravel, which were ground-breaking steps towards his orchestral style.

In 1904, he discovered English folksongs and carols by travelling the countryside, transcribing the songs he heard in small rural communities. The following year, he conducted his first concert, of the newly founded Leith Hill Music Festival, which he would continue to conduct until 1953.

Some of his most prized early works include the 1909 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and A Sea Symphony, also known as Symphony No. 1. He had even more success with his Symphony No. 2, which came to be known as A London Symphony though not named by Vaughan Williams himself.

Vaughan Williams was 41 years old when World War I began and he enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps and subsequently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery, which left him with hearing loss, leading to severe deafness in later life. His post-WWI A Pastoral Symphony or Symphony No. 3, drawns on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer, including a cadenza for trumpet mimicking a military bugle-player practicing and hitting wrong notes.

The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation.

From 1924 onwards, Vaughan Williams moved into a new phase of compositional style, characterised by clashing harmonies and lively cross-rhythms. This can be heard in his Toccata Marziale, Old King Cole, his Piano Concerto and his oratorio Sancta Civitas and culminating in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor. The symphony was premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935 and is drastic contrast from his Pastoral Symphony. Two years later, Vaughan Williams made a historic recording of the work with the same orchestra for HMV records, which remained his only commercial recording.

During the 1930s, Vaughan Williams lectured in the united States and in England and conducted the Bach Choir.

In the 1940s, his music entered a lyrical phase, characterised by his Five Tudor Portraits, Serenade to Music, which is based on scenes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and Symphony No. 5 in D. His very successful Symphony No. 6 caught the critics’ imagination – many cited it as a vision of the aftermath of war – however Vaughan Williams denied any programmatic theme behind it.

His late symphonies include Sinfonia Antartica, based on his film score for Scott of the Antartic and his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, which did not have a positive reaction initially, but is now considered to be a perfect conclusion to his vast corpus of symphonic works.

Vaughan Williams’s style is said to be characteristically English, much like Gustav Holst and Frederick Delius. It has a deep respect for the folk melodies of his native land. According to music critic John Alexander Fuller Maitland, “one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new." Vaughan Williams’s music can be described as nostalgic, yet timeless, mystical, yet rooted in the everyday.

one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new.

London Symphony Orchestra

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