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December 21, 2006

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Britain's Greatest Composer

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - explains why he believes that Ralph Vaughan Williams is arguably the greatest of all composers.

A year ago I highlighted some lesser-known late Romantic music which I have greatly enjoyed. In that column I skirted around Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), my favourite composer, and here I want to make amends by discussing this great man and his music.

In my opinion Vaughan Williams (henceforth VW) was the greatest English composer. I will go further and say - in what is, I fully realize, a view unlikely to be widely shared - that he was arguably the greatest of all composers, a statement I make with all due respect to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al. VW was in my view the Shakespeare of music: if Shakespeare (whoever he was) had written serious music in the twentieth century rather than plays and poetry 350 years earlier, he would surely have sounded much like VW. Indeed, VW's Serenade to Music (1938), based on a passage from The Merchant of Venice, is arguably the greatest single musical setting of a text from Shakespeare. (Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was in the audience at its premier, said that it was the greatest single piece of music he had ever heard.) Yet, while universally acknowledged as a leading British composer, VW has probably never really received the recognition he truly deserves, and hence this essay.

One of the most striking facts about VW is that he lived, and was active, for a remarkably long period of time. His first important classical work, Toward the Unknown Region, appeared in 1907, while the last work he completed in his lifetime, his Ninth Symphony, was premiered in April 1958. VW died four months later while working on several new projects, including a cello concerto. When his earliest pieces appeared, Rimski-Korsakov and Mahler were still alive, while by April 1958 - if this does not sound too ridiculous - Elvis was king and we are in the age of Stockhausen and Boulez.

But this does not give a true indication of the sweep of time through which VW lived, for when he was born in October 1872 Lizst, Mussorgsky, Bizet, Borodin, Franck, Gounod, Smetna, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi were still alive, while Brahms and Wagner had yet to write several of their most famous works. VW was four when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph; he died in the year that stereo L.P.s first became widely available.

While he thus lived through a very lengthy musical epoch, from the time the classical Romantic repertoire was still being established to the time when atonality and other forms of unorthodox music were arguably at their peak, VW remained true to his central practice based on deeply moving lyrical Romanticism. While his music is often said to have been derived from English folk music - which is obviously the case, although to a far lesser extent than many imagine - much more important in all likelihood is Anglican church music. In 1904 VW was asked, out of the blue, to rewrite the Anglican hymn book, which he did over the next two years. Its influence is arguably much more discernable in his works than any other.

VW was also influenced by a number of other well-known English composers of his time, especially Parry, Stanford, Holst, and George Butterworth. While he studied abroad under Ravel and others, foreign musical trends appear to have had little obvious influence on him, with the possible exception of Sibelius.

With his contemporaries, VW comprised, in effect, an English nationalistic school of music, although what this meant is often misunderstood. VW is often seen as the most comprehensively English of composers, but Elgar's more overtly patriotic music was surprisingly alien to his lyricism (the two men do not appear to have been close), and VW's English nationalism had some surprising aspects. When he wrote his opera The Pilgrim's Progress in 1951, based on John Bunyan's famous work, he deliberately changed the name of the protagonist from Christian to Pilgrim as he

wanted the idea to apply to anyone who aims at spiritual life whether he is Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Shintoist, or Fifth [sic] Day Adventist.
The lyrics to this opera do not appear to contain one word about Jesus or Christianity. VW was not, however, motivated by proto-political correctness, and nor was he a sensitive New Age guy ahead of his time.

He was unquestionably a patriotic Englishman who, although forty-two, in 1914 volunteered for the Army Medical Corps, spending five years in uniform, mainly on the Western Front, and headed a field ambulance at the Somme. Many of his friends, of course, were killed, including George Butterworth; they are commemorated in his Third Symphony. In 1938 VW was offered an honorary degree by Hamburg University, which he only accepted after sending a stiff letter stating that:

I am strongly opposed to the present system of government in Germany, especially with regard to its treatment of artists and scholars…and my first instinct is to refuse.
VW's music was actually banned by Hitler later the same year. VW was certainly not a radical pacifist like Tippett or Britten; nor was he in any sense an ultra-nationalist, let alone a proto-fascist. He was a very decent, old fashioned conservative liberal, like the culture he reflected. (VW was closely related to Darwin and Wedgwood, and married Virginia Woolf's cousin.) All this has to be appreciated in coming to terms with VW's music.

To those without a keen interest in his music, VW is probably known by only a handful of works, mainly his Tallis Fantasia, The Lark Ascending, and The Fantasia on Greensleeves - the first two of which are certainly masterpieces. To know his music only by these is, however, clearly a mistake and I would like here to note a number of other masterly works which anyone who is moved by and attracted to his well-known pieces will surely want to know. In Britain, VW is very well-known and his works are frequently played on BBC3 radio - although not as often as they might be - but overseas he still remains all too little known, and the works noted here might well be new to many readers:

- His Symphony No. Two: A London Symphony (1914) contains what in my opinion is the most beautiful single passage in classical music. It occurs in the Second Movement ("Lento") from about 6'10" through 8'40" in the Andre Previn/LSO recording (5'45" to 8'15" in the Slatkin/Philharmonia recording). This passage is possibly the closest approach to transcendence I know of in classical music.

- Arguably VW's greatest single work is his opera The Pilgrim's Progress, first performed in 1951. There are two recordings of this work, the earlier one, dating from 1972 (and reissued by EMI Classics in 1992) probably being the better of the two. Two tracks in particular on Disc One, "The House Beautiful" (Track 3) and "The Arming of the Pilgrim" (Track 5) are extraordinarily good.

- The Pilgrim's Progress contains many passages which had also been used in what is, as a whole work, probably VW's greatest symphony, his Fifth Symphony (1943), a profoundly majestic work which appeared in the middle of the Second World War, a time and situation which also produced major works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Aaron Copland.

- Like a number of other twentieth century English composers VW wrote surprisingly good and sensitive chamber music, as well as - during the 1940s and early 1950s - excellent film music. These are now also available on cd.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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Since I disagreed so very competely with William Rubinstein recently let me be the first to say that I don't disagree with any of this though I have never been sure whether my experience in finding VW the most moving of composers is just a sort of cultural bias of Englishness in general and a C of E education in particular.

Posted by: Lincoln Allison at December 21, 2006 02:38 PM
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I’m not a great fan of RVW – his religious music puts me off. It’s got that pervading sense of unbelief-but-don’t-let’s-admit-it feeling that also comes with Benjamin Britten and John Rutter.

In the case of RVW, there is an evident reason for this. As the Wikipedia article says:

Despite his substantial involvement in church music, and the religious subject-matter of many of his works, he was described by his second wife as "an atheist … [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism."

In addition, he was born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, being a great-nephew of Charles Darwin. Now I have nothing against Darwin’s science, but he came with theological and philosophical baggage that left much to be desired. Robert Shindler, a friend of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, wrote:

If anyone wishes to know where the tadpole of Darwinism was hatched, we could point him to the pew of the old chapel in High Street, Shrewsbury, where Mr. Darwin, his father, and we believe his father's father, received their religious training. The chapel was built for Mr. Talents, an ejected minister; but for very many years full-blown Socinianism has been taught there, as also in the old chapel at Chester, where Matthew Henry used to minister

“Socinianism” here is referring to Unitarianism, and was described by Charles Darwin’s grandfather as “a feather-bed to catch a falling Christian”. (Its prevalence in parts of Ceredigion led to that region called y smotyn du or “the black spot”). This influence has spread like a miasma throughout English “culture”, manifesting itself not only in enervating church music but the wholesale loss of spirit that has left us like a wet lettuce in the face of multiculturalism, militant Islam, militant Homosexualism, and anything else favoured by Ken Livingstone and George Galloway.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 21, 2006 04:18 PM
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I am Greek and i had no reasons to love England. On the contrary i had reasons for the opposite.

Until I heard the music of RVW who I believe is simply the soul of England.

Posted by: JOHN STAVROULAKIS at June 10, 2008 07:08 PM
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