Ralph Vaughan Williams was certainly no childhood prodigy. ‘It would be hard,’ his composer friend George Butterworth commented, ‘to name any other first-rate composer who had “found himself” with such apparent difficulty.’ ‘VW’ was nearly 30 when the song Linden Lea brought him his first taste of recognition, and 38 when A Sea Symphony (the first of nine he wrote) had its premiere.
Vaughan Williams’s late development can easily look like musical dim-wittedness. Britten waspishly accused the Five Mystical Songs of ‘technical incompetence’, and VW’s extended period of academic training (three Cambridge degrees, two spells at the Royal College of Music, and study with Bruch and Ravel) points at a certain insecurity in the early years about his ability as a composer.
Deeper reasons, however, underlie Vaughan Williams’s slow ascent to artistic maturity. Chief among them was his stubborn determination not to allow the potent influence of the great Austro-Germanic masters to dominate his music. ‘What matters,’ he said, ‘is to be true to oneself’, not a third-rank imitation of Brahms or Mendelssohn.
The key to the distinctiveness Vaughan Williams was looking for was folk-song. Bushes and Briars was the first song he collected (from an Essex labourer named Mr Potiphar) and it hit him like a revelation. Here was a direct connection to the essence of the nation’s musical spirit: it gave Vaughan Williams a new language to talk in, and it could be the basis of a truly English type of classical music. Folk-song, he said later, ‘freed us from foreign influences which weighed on us, which we could not get rid of.’
There is a direct line of influence between this moment of Damascene insight and two works which have become emblematic of Vaughan Williams’s output, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending, compositions held by many listeners to be quintessentially English. The Thomas Tallis fantasia is based on a hymn tune by the Elizabethan composer, its quasi-mystical resonances refracted across the centuries by VW’s use of three separate string groupings. The Lark Ascending, a rapturous 15-minute ‘romance’ for violin and orchestra, is even more redolent of England, specifically the English countryside. Folk-song is not directly quoted by VW (it rarely was), and yet its influence in terms of atmosphere and the shaping of melody is constantly apparent.
The immense popularity of The Lark has, however, encouraged the assumption that many or most of Vaughan Williams’s compositions are in some way ‘pastoral’, and similarly placid in temperament. VW himself unwittingly contributed to this misconception by labelling his Third Symphony ‘Pastoral’, and composer Peter Warlock duly castigated the work as ‘like a cow looking over a gate’.
Warlock was wrong. The Third Symphony is undoubtedly a restrained composition, but also sad, unsettled, and not at all idyllic like The Lark Ascending. The symphony was born of World War I, during which Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance orderly, ferrying wounded soldiers back from the front line for medical treatment. The ‘Pastoral’ was, he said, ‘really war-time music… it’s not really lambkins frisking at all…’
Any lingering doubts about Vaughan Williams being a one-trick pony were dispelled by the savagery and bleakness of the Fourth Symphony that came in 1935, in the composer’s early 60s. Premonitions of this lurch in stylistic temper were present in Job: A Masque for Dancing written in 1930, but the grimness of the Fourth was unprecedented. ‘I don’t know whether I like it,’ VW himself commented, ‘but it was what I meant.’
There have been various theories about the genesis of this seemingly uncharacteristic music: it was VW’s response to the worsening situation in Europe, a memorial to the recently deceased Holst, an angry reaction to his wife’s crippling arthritis and his own recent medical problems. Asked what the symphony was actually about, VW allegedly replied ‘It is about F minor’.
The next two symphonies were also masterpieces. The Fifth, completed in 1943 when VW was 70, reflected the grimness and foreboding of WWII in passages of deep unease, before casting a hopeful gaze towards the future in its closing pages. For Adrian Boult, the symphony showed ‘what we must work for when this madness is over.’
The ‘madness’ itself shrieks manically from the opening pages of the Sixth, and haunts its frightening Moderato movement, the raving Scherzo, and the drained, desolate Epilogue, all hope apparently vanished.
Vaughan Williams continued writing music for another decade, completing three more symphonies and The Pilgrim’s Progress. He also wrote choral music: Vaughan Williams was not conventionally religious, yet some of his most moving vocal compositions (especially the visionary Sancta Civitas and Dona Nobis Pacem) draw heavily on the English Christian tradition and reflect its humanitarian principles.
He was also a songwriter of stature, the two cycles On Wenlock Edge (a brooding, expressionistic sequence on poems by AE Housman) and Five Mystical Songs being worthy of attention. Nor should the concertos be overlooked: he wrote four (for violin, piano, oboe and bass tuba), as well as suites and concertante works for viola, cello and harmonica.
When Vaughan Williams died in 1958 at the age of 85, the Musical Times obituary noted that ‘in his music he expressed the essential spirit of England as perhaps no other composer has ever done before’. The England VW represented was not one of ‘lambkins frisking’, but one where rugged optimism and an unflinching commitment to human decency were defining characteristics.