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Classical Composers A-Z: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Peter Wintersill introduces us to the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who wrote his first piano piece when he was six.

Born
12th October, 1872 , in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire

Father
Arthur, Vicar of Down Ampney.

Mother
Margaret (Nee Wedgwood), great granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, niece of Charles Darwin.

Family
Youngest of three children, brother Harvey and sister Margaret.

Childhood
Like Mozart he showed an early interest in the piano when he could hardly reach the keys. Wrote his first piano piece aged six. His father died suddenly when he was three. He started violin lessons aged seven, and exams by correspondence at eight.

Played duets with brother and sister (Messiah, etc.) from old books. Used to peruse hymn tunes; his favourites included Old Hundredth. He heard his first choral music at the Three Choirs Festival, with which he was connected for most of his life.

He went to boarding school at Rottingdean aged 11, which was a very spartan life.

Adolescence
He went on to Charterhouse at 15, left at 18, went to the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Parry.

After two years he went to Cambridge, but continued part-time at the Royal College of Music and studied with Charles Wood, Stanford and Walter Parratt. A fellow student of his was Gustav Hoist, who became a life-long friend.

Early Adult Life
He spent a short time as organist at St. Barnabas, S. Lambeth. In 1896 he married Adeline Fisher and took her to Berlin, where he studied with Max Bruch, later with Ravel in Paris in 1908.

He joined the English Folk Song Society while he travelled round, collecting folk songs, especially in Somerset and Norfolk (1903). He also showed much interest in Tudor Church Music, wrote Variations on a Theme of Tallis in 1910.

He wrote many songs in the early 20th Century, eg: Linden Lee (1901), Silent Noon (1903) and the song cycle On Wenlock Edge (1909). He was much influenced by Blake, Housman and Bunyan.

He also spent some years editing the English Hymnal, finishing in 1906. He also co-edited Songs of Praise with Martin Shaw.

He later started writing choral works, eg: Sea Symphony (1910) - first performed in Leeds, Toward the Unknown Region (1907), Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912), incidental music to the Wasps (1909) and the London Symphony (1914).

He wrote several hymn tunes, including Down Ampney, Sine Nomine, Randolph and Kings Weston.

Also in 1914 came his opera Hugh the Drover.

Later Adult Life
In 1914 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private, before finally being commissioned in 1917 in the R.G.A. About the same time his wife started with arthritis, which caused her much pain and disability, but she did not allow it to interfere with her life style.

On being demobbed in 1919 he became Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music and was made an Hon. Mus. Doc at Oxford.

Despite being an agnostic he was able to write several religious works, including the Mass in G Minor (1923), Three Preludes to Hymn Tunes (1920), Flos Campi (1923) and Sancta Civitas (1925), which was dedicated to Gustav Holst. He briefly met Sibelius at a party, where they had a very short conversation in French.

He became conductor of the Handel Society and the Bach Choir. He wrote the Third Symphony (pastoral) in 1922 and conducted the premiere in New York, where he was entertained by a millionaire. He conducted the premiere of Sancta Civitas (his own favourite) in 1926.

In 1929 he wrote Sir John in Love, Benedicite, edited the O.C.B. jointly with Martin Shaw and met Elgar. Next year he became Hon. Mus. Doc at the University of Wales and wrote his ballet Job. The Magnificat followed in 1932 and the Piano Concerto in 1933.

He attended Elgar's memorial service in 1934 and conducted the Dream of Gerontius at Leith Hill. The same year his old friend Gustav Holst died.

In 1936 he wrote Dona Nobis Pacem and Five Tudor Portraits and in 1938 the Serenade to Music for the Henry Wood Golden Jubilee, which he dedicated to Wood. He went to Hamburg University for the Shakespeare prize, where they played his Tallis Fantasia and London Symphony.

Wartime
His music had to take second place for a while, but he kept busy with other things, eg: National Savings, salvage, refugees and the garden. He did however, write some music for films, eg: 49th Parallel, Coastal Command and later Scott of the Antarctic (incorporated in 1953 into the Seventh Symphony).

In 1944 he wrote an Oboe Concerto, later other oddities such as concertos for harmonica and tuba. Later he wrote (rather prematurely) Thanksgiving for Victory. The Fifth Symphony appeared in 1943 and the Sixth in 1948.

The premiere of Thanksgiving for Victory was conducted by Boult; just after V.J. Day. At St. Martin’s there was a service devoted entirely to his own music, the chant for which arrived only just in time!

Later Life
As he got older he still worked hard, but of course tired more easily. He had a wide range of interests, both musical and general; thus he liked opera and ballet, and Gilbert & Sullivan, as well as church and orchestral music.

On the general side he was fond of walking, the cinema and entertaining - his house, like Bach's, being often full. He supported Dr. Moody, organist at Ripon, in his battle against the Dean and Chapter, who wanted to discontinue choral settings .

Adeline's arthritis got gradually worse, confining her to a wheelchair, but she remained cheerful and busy, writing many letters to friends and relations .

In 1947 there were his golden wedding and 75th birthday, so of course there were parties and concerts galore. He was a very sociable person and always enjoyed parties and other gatherings. He got many food parcels from abroad, food being still rationed for some years after the war.

He was now getting rather deaf and Adeline more crippled with arthritis and in constant pain. She eventually died in 1951, two months after the premiere of his opera Pilgrim's Progress. In 1952 he had a holiday in France, the first time he had ever flown, after which his portrait was painted for the Royal College of Music. In October he had his 80th birthday, marked by a concert of his works, conducted by Boult.

Next year he married Ursula Wood, a widow and a General's daughter; they had a honeymoon in Italy and took a house in Regents Park. Shortly after Barbirolli conducted the premiere of his Seventh Symphony, the Sinfonia Antarctica.

He wrote the anthem O Taste and See and arranged the Old Hundredth for the Queen's Coronation in 1953, which they both attended. Later he wrote the Christmas Cantata Hodie - This Day - dedicated to Herbert Howells.

He then did a lecture and concert tour of the USA., seeing the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. In 1955 they had a long holiday in Greece, then he wrote and conducted his Eighth Symphony and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the English Hymnal.

In 1957 he had a major operation in the Middlesex Hospital followed by his 85th birthday party. He died on 26th August, 1958, aged 86 in London of a coronary thrombosis.

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