Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Some composers write masterpieces at the age of seventeen. Others, at the same age, write nothing. Mozart and Schubert both crammed a lifetime’s worth of work into three short decades, whilst others grow to maturity much more slowly. Ralph Vaughan Williams was one such composer. Had he died at the same age that Schubert did, he would be unknown to us today as a composer.

Born in 1872, in the vicarage of the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney, the son of a country parson, Vaughan Williams was to develop his style steadily over the final five decades of the eight which made up his life. His first significant work, A Sea Symphony, was not written until 1903, by which time he was over thirty, and most of the works for which he is remembered today were written in his fifties and sixties. The first British composer of any note to write an opera since Purcell in the late seventeenth century, Vaughan Williams is perhaps the most quintessentially English of all twentieth-century English composers. A relative of Charles Darwin, he was arguably the most important composer of his generation, and certainly the most diverse and prolific.

For Vaughan Williams, school at Charterhouse was followed by a period of musical study at the Royal College of Music with Stanford and Parry and at Trinity College Cambridge with Stanford and Charles Wood. He emerged from this in 1900 with a doctorate in music, an F.R.C.O. and various other qualifications, but still no compositions of any significance to his name. This was followed by a period abroad and study in Berlin with Bruch and in Paris with Ravel. Vaughan Williams struggled in his early days and was hampered by bad compositional technique, a fault he recognised and strove hard to overcome. The catalyst for his success was in the realisation that the way forward lay, for him, not in imitating foreign models as Elgar had, but in recycling and reapplying native resources. Resistant to the Germanic romantic musical style of his teachers and of Elgar, he found himself without a voice.

At a chance meeting with an elderly retired shepherd at, of all places, a vicar’s tea party, Vaughan Williams was introduced to folksong. It was a meeting which was to change his life. During a ten year period from 1902, he travelled around the countryside and coastline of Great Britain, usually on foot, collecting folksongs from farmers, shepherds, gardeners, fishermen, stonemasons, dairymaids and the like in a notebook. By 1910 he had over 800 of them. He soaked himself in their melodic shapes, their often modal harmonic implications, and their quirky rhythms. In the bare bones of Vaughan Williams’ mature musical language therefore we see these features, which were derived and developed from this love of folk song. It was this which finally allowed him to find a voice and was to define the character of his music, allowing him to break free from the great German romantic tradition and replacing it with a fascination for English folk song and early Jacobean music.

Surprisingly, given his parentage, his editorship of the English hymnal (for which he wrote several very popular hymn tunes), his posts as church organist and his writing of sacred music, Vaughan Williams was a professed atheist. During the first world war he served on the front line in Salonika and was made Director of Music for the British Army Expeditionary Force. Vaughan Williams composed in virtually every genre – from film scores to opera, from solo song to huge scale symphonic works, from chamber music to church music, from organ music to nationalistic orchestral works such as the Fantasias on Greensleeves and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. He and Gustav Holst (1874-1934) were very close friends, and the two composers would regularly get together for what they called ‘field days’ – times when they would share their current and usually incomplete work with each another and subject each other to criticism and suggestion. (After his period of study in Paris with Ravel, Holst is said to have remarked, “Why Ralph, your music sounds like it has been having tea with Debussy!”.)

A great nationalistic composer, Vaughan Williams revelled in the delights of both the English countryside and of London. One has only to look at the titles of some of his most enduring works (The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on Greensleeves, a Norfolk Rhapsody, In the Fen Country, The London Symphony, A Sea Symphony, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis) to understand that this was a different type of nationalism from that which we find in the Pomp and Circumstance marches of Elgar, and one much more akin to that of Frederick Delius.

The present Te Deum, one of only two settings which he made of the text, was written for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Cosmo Gordon Lang in 1928. The music alternates between strong bold statements in unison, to sparkling passages for double choir, with one choir imitating the other in what has been described as ‘showers of brilliantly shining notes seemingly falling from heaven’. Modulation is a frequent occurrence, the music sometimes changing key every few bars, and throughout verses 6-10 the music rocks between compound and simple time seemingly at will. Verses 16 and 20 are treated with musical reverence and the final section, the petitions, is very simple in comparison to the earlier music.