RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS 1872 - 1958

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"Portrait of  

Ralph  Vaughan  Williams"

Author Rinat Kuramshin

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an English composer, organist, conductor, musical and public figure, collector and researcher of English musical folklore. Vaughan Williams is among the best-known British symphonists, noted for his very wide range of moods, from stormy and impassioned to tranquil, from mysterious to exuberant. His works have continued to be a staple of the British concert repertoire. His works include operas, ballets, chamber music, secular and religious vocal pieces and orchestral compositions including nine symphonies, written over sixty years. Strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folk-song, his output marked a decisive break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century.

In 1904, Vaughan Williams discovered English folk songs and carols, which were fast becoming extinct owing to the oral tradition through which they existed being undermined by the increase of literacy and printed music in rural areas. Later he incorporated some songs and melodies into his own music, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working lives of ordinary people. His efforts did much to raise appreciation of traditional English folk song and melody. Among the most familiar of his other concert works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) and The Lark Ascending (1914). His vocal works include hymns, folk-song arrangements and large-scale choral pieces. He wrote eight works for stage performance between 1919 and 1951. His ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing (1930) was successful and has been frequently staged. It is as a symphonist that Vaughan Williams is best known.

The composer and academic Elliott Schwartz wrote (1964), «It may be said with truth that Vaughan Williams, Sibelius and Prokofieff are the symphonists of this century».

All the composer’s major works and many of the minor ones have been recorded. There have been numerous complete LP and CD sets of the nine symphonies, most of which was recorded in the composer’s presence. Vaughan Williams refused a knighthood at least once, and declined the post of Master of the King’s Music after Elgar’s death. The one state honour he accepted was the Order of Merit in 1935, which confers no prenominal title: he preferred to remain «Dr Vaughan Williams». Historically his achievement was to cut the bonds that from the times of Handel and Mendelssohn had bound England hand and foot to the Continent. He found in the Elizabethans and folk-song the elements of a native English language that need no longer be spoken with a German accent, and from it he forged his own idiom. The emancipation he achieved thereby was so complete that the composers of succeeding generations like Walton and Britten had no longer need of the conscious nationalism which was Vaughan Williams’s own artistic creed.

Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting the Boyd Neil Orchestra. London, 1953

R.V. -Williams and  L. Hancock, conductor of the Covent Garden Orchestra. 1951

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Royal College of Music

Composers of the generation after Vaughan Williams reacted against his style, which became unfashionable in influential musical circles in the 1960s; diatonic and melodic music such as his was neglected in favour of atonal and other modernist compositions. Later this neglect has been reversed. In the fiftieth anniversary year of his death two contrasting documentary films were released: Tony Palmer’s O Thou Transcendent: The Life of Vaughan Williams and John Bridcut’s The Passions of Vaughan Williams. Among the 21st-century musicians who have acknowledged Vaughan Williams’s influence on their development are John Adams, PJ Harvey, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Anthony Payne, Wayne Shorter, Neil Tennant and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

In 1994 a group of enthusiasts founded the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, with the composer’s widow as its president. The society, a registered charity, has sponsored and encouraged performances of the composer’s works including complete symphony cycles and a Vaughan Williams opera festival. The society has promoted premieres of neglected works, and has its own record label, Albion Records.

He refused all honours except the O.M. and his musical creed was that «every composer cannot expect to have a worldwide message, but he may reasonable expect to have a special message for his own people». His musical compositions are popular in the UK, Russia and many other countries.