Nobody has evoked the languid pastoral England of our dreams quite as surely as Vaughan Williams did in The Lark Ascending. Likewise his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis expresses the mysterious hold the Tudor past continues to have on our imagination. In light of this, it is easy to forget to think about what the man behind the music was really like. To mark Vaughan Williams’s life here are nine facts that shed some light on the composer’s life.
1. Despite his music’s deep affinity with the English countryside, VW preferred day-to-day city life. For many years he lived in Dorking, whose railway line kept this middle-England location within conveniently close reach of London.
2. From childhood onwards he was an agnostic. Yet religious and spiritual subjects inspired many of his finest works.
3. He greatly admired Richard Wagner and refused to go along with the folk-music movement’s resistance to the German musical tradition.
4. He served throughout the First World War, as a medical orderly then in an artillery regiment – mainly in France and Greece – although his age meant that he could have been exempted.
5. During the Second World War, he is rumoured to have done a stint of cleaning at the local public toilets in Dorking.
6. In 1942, Michael Tippett was summoned before a tribunal as a conscientious objector. VW spoke in his defence. ‘I think Tippett’s pacifist views are entirely wrong,’ he said. ‘But I respect him very much for holding them so firmly.’
7. During the Second World War, the widowed Ursula Wood – later to become VW’s second wife – conceived a child by him. The pregnancy was terminated.
8. His handwriting was abysmal, perhaps because he was naturally left-handed and was made to write with his right hand.
9. His lifelong belief in music being about people – by them (folk music and choral singing) and for them – suggests a left-wing viewpoint. Yet VW denounced what he saw as the Left’s disloyal and deluded post-War cosying-up to the Soviet Union.
Find out more about Vaughan Williams and his works here