This week, Caroline Bennett introduces another talented British composer and his music. Like John Rutter, whom Caroline Bennett discussed in last month’s article, this composer created famous hymn and Christmas carol arrangements, but he is perhaps better known for his compositions based on English folk songs.
“The duty of the words is to say just as much as the music has left unsaid and no more.”—Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1902
Born on October 12, 1872, in Gloucestershire, England, Ralph Vaughan Williams (pronounced “Rafe Vawn Williams”) is one of the most influential British composers ever to have lived. Though his name may not mean anything to most people, he arranged many of the English folk tunes and Christmas carols people know and cherish today, and he also composed numerous pieces for a variety of instruments.
Like many composers, Vaughan Williams began studying music at an early age, eventually learning how to play the violin, viola, piano, and organ. When he was old enough, Vaughan Williams attended the Royal College of Music as a composition pupil of the prominent composer C. Hubert H. Parry, who instilled in Vaughan Williams a deep love for English music. However, though Vaughan Williams loved composition, his peers declared that he was completely ignorant of how to write music, and Vaughan Williams agreed. Nevertheless, he studied hard, and after attending multiple schools and being taught by many different teachers, he began to master his art.
Vaughan Williams was greatly influenced by three different sources: English folk songs, English hymnody, and English seventeenth-century literature. It is no wonder, then, that he collected many of the forgotten songs of his homeland and turned them into the themes of his many fantasias, symphonies, rhapsodies, and choral works. Two of his most famous compositions are, in fact, “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” and “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” the themes of which are from sixteenth century Britain. Yet Vaughan Williams’ compositions are distinctly his own, despite their uniquely British sounds and themes. He loved to use the swelling sounds of the string orchestra, the lilting arpeggios of the harp, and the sweet notes of the violin, as exhibited in the thrilling violin and orchestra piece “The Lark Ascending,” the moving “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus,’” and his famous “Pastoral Symphony.” Vaughan Williams also wrote a number of works for choirs, such as “A Sea Symphony,” “The Voice Out of the Whirlwind” and “Mass in G Minor.”
Perhaps Vaughan Williams’ greatest legacy, however, was his editorship of The English Hymnal, Songs of Praise, and The Oxford Book of Carols. By gathering and arranging hundreds of forgotten hymns, Vaughan Williams preserved part of Christendom’s rich heritage and breathed new life into these songs. The pieces he arranged include “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing,” “For All the Saints,” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” to name but a few.
One need only listen to a few of his arrangements or compositions to realize that Ralph Vaughan Williams loved his homeland, for he devoted his life and art to preserving and adding to his nation’s amazing heritage. He renewed the populace’s interest in the traditional songs of England, composed new pieces that were distinctly British, and preserved a vast number of hymns and carols for the use of Christians all over the world.
♪ Marriner, Neville and Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields. R. Vaughan Williams. Decca, 1985.