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England's most expressive composer

Ralph Vaughan Williams remembered

Created date

November 23rd, 2015
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

He had the face of a stoic philosopher and the mind of an enchanting artist. In the annals of classical music, the name Ralph Vaughan Williams has long been synonymous with the dramatic and, more to the point, the cinematic.

Inasmuch as his image seems to contradict this fact, a look at his career only confirms it.

A member of an esteemed and moneyed family, Vaughan Williams enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England, in 1872, the son of the town vicar Arthur Vaughan Williams, and Margaret Wedgwood, who happened to be Charles Darwin’s niece.

Following his father’s unexpected death in 1875, he moved with his mother and siblings to the family’s sprawling Surrey estate, Leith Hill Place. Here, Ralph began taking piano lessons with his aunt Sophy.

Less than a year later, he had already written his first piano piece, The Robin’s Nest. He was just six years old.

From the beginning, the young musician showed creative promise.

He continued formal study throughout his boyhood, moving on to the violin. At age eight, he even passed a correspondence course in music from Edinburgh University.

On the whole, however, Vaughan Williams was a typical teenager. He went to school, played sports (though not very well), studied the usual subjects alongside his peers, and in 1890, enrolled in London’s Royal College of Music.

Ironically, this decision didn’t please his mother, who wasn’t entirely convinced of her son’s artistic prospects. She instead expected Ralph to engage in more academic pursuits and, after two years at the Royal College, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and studied music and history.

While at Trinity, he continued to work under the tutelage of his Royal College professors, studying composition with respectable names such as Hubert Parry and Charles Wood. By 1895, Vaughan Williams had earned bachelor's degrees in music and arts from Trinity, after which he returned to the Royal College before going on to Cambridge, where he obtained his doctorate in music.

Into the first decade of the twentieth century, Ralph made a modest living by writing compositions for publication as sheet music and in magazines like The Vocalist, but he had yet to find his voice—the sound that would secure his place as a master.

Ravel’s student

He knew that he was still developing, and in 1907, he won the coveted distinction of being one of the few students to work under the guidance of Maurice Ravel. Through the winter of 1908, Vaughan Williams studied with the French composer five days a week and successfully met his notoriously rigorous demands.

In fact, Ravel once referred to Vaughan Williams as “my only pupil who does not write my music.”

To be sure, Ralph, by now in his 30s, was coming into his own. In 1910, he had composed a masterful string orchestral piece called Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which he borrowed from the namesake’s sixteenth-century air.

Noted for its majestic swells and haunting melodic strains, Fantasia had an unmistakably mystical quality that moved audiences emotionally. Upon its debut, a critic from The Times of London wrote that it lifted listeners “into some unknown region of musical thought and feeling.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams had arrived. Although interrupted by his service in the First World War, the composer’s career steadily progressed over the years. 

Spanning many genres

During the 1920s, he produced a wide variety of music: choral works, symphonies, and ballets. In the early 30s, he traveled to the United States to serve as a visiting lecturer at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and in 1940, entered the modern realm of classical music, writing the score for the World War II propaganda film 49th Parallel.

Until his death in 1958 at the age of 86, Vaughan Williams worked vigorously, composing a total of nine symphonies, the scores for close to a dozen films, and countless other pieces.

To this day, his music inspires musicians and filmmakers alike. Indeed, almost 60 years after his death, his compositions provide the soundtracks to blockbuster movies, including Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander (2003).

Vaughan Williams undoubtedly deserves a seat among the greats, for the stolid expression that he wore in his portraits belied the tempest of dramatic ideas that roiled in his head.