An interview with Debbie Wiseman

We talk to the composer about a landmark festival celebrating Vaughan Williams

Published: July 25, 2018 at 12:01 pm

It’s hard to believe there’s never been a festival celebrating Ralph Vaughan Williams in the UK before, isn’t it?


Yes, amazingly this is the first. You would have thought that a festival of this kind already existed. This year marks the 60th anniversary of his death, and the festival will take place in the gorgeous Cotswolds village of Down Ampney, which is where he was born in 1872. All the concerts are going to be performed in the beautiful All Saints' Church.

Will it be a one-off festival or is there potential for this to become an annual event?

We are hoping it will be an annual event – it’s looking very positive so far. Within a week of advertising almost all the concerts sold out.

Which works by Vaughan Williams will be performed?

As well his famous pieces like The Lark Ascending we will also play some of his lesser-known works. The first concert really aims to feature music that people would not necessarily know. We’ve got his four hymns, his early songs which include Silent Moon and Three Shakespeare Songs. Then there’s an arrangement of Rhosymedre, and an early Piano Quintet in C Minor inspired by Brahms. That was completed in 1903 and premiered in 1905 but then it didn’t really emerge again until 1999, so that piece was left to one side for quite some time. It’s beautiful.

There are also lectures and talks, including one with me where I’m being interviewed about writing music for the screen and concert hall.

How do the other composers featured at the festival relate to Vaughan Williams?

Everything has a connection – they’re either a contemporary, a mentor, one of his teachers, or someone who inspired him. Ravel, Max Bruch, Stanford, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells and Rebecca Clarke are all featured.

How did you become involved with the festival?

It’s all down to the artistic director Philip Dukes, who is an amazing viola player and had a passion for Vaughan Williams from an early age. He wanted to do something to commemorate his favourite composer and so we started to piece together the programme.

I’ve been helping wherever I can: promoting the event, setting it up, encouraging people to get involved. Quite a lot of fundraising was required at the beginning to make it all happen. Hopefully, I’ve just been a support to Philip. These festivals are very time consuming and difficult to put on, and there is a lot of organisation involved.

How has Vaughan Williams been an influence on you as a composer?

It’s impossible not to be influenced by him. He is an absolutely brilliant composer, and so prolific as well. It’s almost a shame that he is known for The Lark Ascending because there is so much else that he wrote that is outstanding. I’m thrilled that this festival will introduce people to more of his music.

The orchestration, inventiveness and the utter Englishness of his work appeals to me. A particular English flavour runs through everything he writes, and feels beautifully timeless – it could have been written now or 100 years ago.

Are there any concerts or events you’re particularly looking forward to?

The grand finale. That’s going to be stunning. It will feature music by Vaughan Williams, but also music by Ravel and Frank Bridge, and actor Anton Lesser is going to be narrating and reading words by another pupil of Vaughan Williams.

There is also a very interesting lecture called ‘Mentors and Teachers’ on the Sunday evening. By this point in the festival, we will have heard a lot of Vaughan Williams’s music, but not necessarily much about his mentors and teachers.

I’m really looking forward to just being there in the beautiful Cotswolds, enjoying some inspirational music in the sun. We’ve even organised some special Vaughan Williams ale to be sold in the marquee tent. There will be cream teas and tours of the area he lived in. There’s a licensed bar and you can picnic outside if the weather permits.


Tickets for the Vaughan Williams Festival (24-27 August) are available here.


Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.

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