Ralph Vaughan Williams created important works in most major musical forms and genres, from symphonies and operas through to songs and chamber music, but also music for film and other contexts. His involvement in a range of musical organisations, and the support he provided to younger composers, made him a central figure in British musical life.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the village of Down Ampney in the Cotswolds in 1872, but grew up in Leith Hill, Surrey. His earliest published works appeared at the turn of the 20th century (the song Linden Lea being among the first, as well as the cycle Songs of Travel a few years later). He studied composition at the Royal College of Music in the early 1890s under Stanford and Hubert Parry, and also briefly in Berlin with Max Bruch (1897). But it was lessons with Maurice Ravel in Paris in 1907/8 that Vaughan Williams credited with helping establish his own distinctive style, starting with works such as On Wenlock Edge and the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. The early years also saw Vaughan Williams involved in a number of practical musical activities, and those also had an impact on his compositions: collecting folk songs, editing early music, and preparing the music for the English Hymnal, as well as performing and conducting.
Vaughan Williams was influenced by a number of aspects of the music of Britain, from historical works of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, to the tradition of rural folk song and dance. He was also perhaps dissatisfied with the musical scene in the late Victorian period and set about trying to find a more distinctive national voice, through the incorporation of aspects of the folk and historical music that he had encountered. Influence also came from other composers too, especially Ravel. Gustav Holst, whom he met whilst studying at the Royal College of Music in 1895, had a specific influence on many of his works. They became close friends and often met to show each other works in progress and offer constructive criticism.
Features of his music
Vaughan Williams’s music is often associated with the idea of the ‘pastoral’, partly because of the folk-inspired nature of his melodies and his extended use of modality. There is greater variety across the whole of his oeuvre than this description implies however – for example in the violence of the fourth symphony, the exuberance of the opera The Poisoned Kiss or the novelty of the bass tuba concerto. A particularly distinctive sound-world arises from the approach to melody and harmony, and also from models from earlier periods of English musical history: particularly that of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.
Operas: Sir John in Love; The Pilgrim’s Progress
Orchestral: The Lark Ascending
Edited: the English Hymnal
Vocal: On Wenlock Edge; Songs of Travel
Vaughan Williams’s approach and musical style influenced a generation of English composers, especially Herbert Howells and Gerald Finzi. And his example of a utilitarian approach to music (if not his specific musical sound-world) was continued by Benjamin Britten. He encouraged and supported many younger composers with very different musical outlooks as well, from Michael Tippett to the countless composers he taught while Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music – Gordon Jacob and Elizabeth Maconchy being just two examples. When he died in 1958, his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, next to those of Henry Purcell and his teacher Charles Villiers Stanford.