Vaughan Williams 150: the writer

RVW in the 1890s

This month sees the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ birth and we here at MusiCB3 thought we would devote many of MusiCB3’s posts over the rest of the year to different aspects of his output in celebration of his life and work. Coming up we will consider RVW’s music for films, RVW and Cambridge and RVW and folk music, but we begin with a consideration of RVW as a writer not of music but of articles and lectures – an aspect of his output which tends to be overlooked perhaps more than it ought to be.

But let’s take a little step back first and set out the context. “Ralph Vaughan Williams was a product of his times, but also transcended them by developing a language to which a wide spectrum of music lovers could respond.” So writes Lewis Foreman in his preface to RVW in perspective [M501.c.95.628], a series of essays on different aspects of the composer. Foreman’s statement must, surely, also be true of the vast majority of composers – Bach in particular comes to mind. But what were “his times”? A bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries, a time of two World Wars, a time of considerable social upheaval and, musically, a time both of great change in and yet also unchanged musical language. RVW stood astride both, bringing elements of the two together, and melded with his deep study of folk music developed his own, inimitable and unmistakeable voice. Songs of Travel, The Lark Ascending, Linden Lea, the Sea Symphony, the Tallis Fantasia, the “Antarctic” Symphony: each has its own distinctive soundscape. Today, he is regarded as, perhaps, the embodiment of what we might think of as quintessentially English classical music of the period: suffused with folk song, often modal in approach, sweeping melodies yet unafraid of challengingly discordant statements, anger and anguish when and where required. Each of his works commands the listener’s full attention from bar one to the final double bar. And one cannot but agree with Simon Heffer who writes in Spectator reviews of two recently-published books on the composer “his place as one of the landmarks of English culture is beyond dispute, and the recognition of his towering position in our national life, and as a figure in international music, can only grow.”

Right, to RVW the writer on music rather than the composer of music. Happily, much of his output has been drawn together in a single volume National music and other essays [M470.d.95.42], published by OUP in 1963, from which I have selected some favourite moments. “The Letter and the Spirit” published originally in Music and Letters, Volume I, Issue 2, March 1920, Pages 87–93, sets out his central philosophy, arguing that music must be heard to be truly understood, not just “read” from the score as one might a book: “That the art of music is essentially one of sound is a proposition which would seem too obvious to need proof. Yet it is the opinion of many people that the really musical man prefers not to hear music, but gets at his music silently by reading it to himself as he would a book.” He deploys a delightful analogy to illustrate his thesis, writing that “The code of signals or series of orders known as musical notation has about as much to do with music as a timetable has to do with a railway journey.” Indeed so – you can’t see the view from the window as your journey unfolds just as (unless you are exceptionally gifted) you can’t properly hear the music as the composer intended it simply by reading the score.

[Editor: You can read the full text online, if you have Raven access here.]

And in “Should music be national?” (originally a talk given as part of a course of lectures in 1932 at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania) he argues coherently and inexorably that it is inevitable that this must be the case, even though a composer may have studied and been influenced by others in other nations. To illustrate his point, he uses an analogy of grape vines imported to California which acquired their own individual flavour, reflecting the soil in which they were grown. “I think I need hardly draw the moral of this”, he writes, “if the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls.” This, surely, embodies RVW’s music to perfection. His deep interest in folk music (so redolent an element of his works) was explored in “The Making of Music”, for the Arnold Bax Lectures at Cork University – he even went so far as to demonstrate that – as far as he could tell – all Irish folk tunes were developed from English originals. (The lectures were all later published in one volume as The Making of Music (M470.c.95.5)).

Wenlock Edge

“Composing for the Films,” written in 1945, is an illuminating account of his approach to the discipline – a very different one from “mainstream” composing. “Film composing is a splendid discipline,” he writes, “and I recommend a course of it to all composition teachers whose pupils are apt to be dawdling in their ideas, or whose every bar is sacred and must not be cut or altered.” He emphasises the crucial importance of providing exactly the right number of minutes and seconds required by the producer in any given place: “the producer says, ‘I want forty seconds of music here’. This means forty, not thirty-nine or forty-one. The picture rolls on relentlessly, like fate…a film producer would make short work of Mahler’s interminable codas or Dvorak’s five endings to each movement.” [Ouch…] RVW recognises that film music is a specialised art and that the necessary mindset and approach to its composition simply has to be developed. He explains that his approach “is to ignore the details and intensify the spirit of the whole situation by a continuous stream of music. This stream can be modified (often at rehearsal!) by points of colour superimposed on the flow. He goes on to illustrate this by imagining a producer’s sudden wish for a flash of sunlight on the waves as Columbus’s ship is sailing…”If you are wise, you will send the orchestra away for five minutes, which will delight them. Then you look at the score and find out what instruments are unemployed – say, the harp and two muted trumpets – you write in your sunlight at the appropriate second; you recall the orchestra; you then play the altered version, while the producer marvels at your skill in composing what appears to him to be an entirely new piece of music in so short a time.” The whole is a wonderfully practical piece of advice to the aspiring composer of film music.

Vaughan Williams in later years

But for me, the most engaging of his written output is a 1955 essay for Hubert Foss “A Musical Autobiography” (which formed a contribution to Foss’s own book on RVW published in 1950). It’s a delightfully modest and self-deprecatory account of his musical development from school, to Cambridge, the RCM with Stanford and beyond. The whole shot through with a wry sense of humour. This, for example, is typical: “I believe I should have made quite a decent fiddler, but the authorities decided that if I was to take up music at all the violin was too “doubtful” a career and I must seek safety on the organ stool, a trade for which I was entirely unsuited; indeed, I have the distinction of being the only pupil who entirely baffled Sir Walter Parratt [President of the Royal College of Organists and a renowned teacher], though I must add, for my own credit, that later on I passed the F. R. C. O. examination. Sir Hugh Allen always insisted that I must have bribed the examiners.”

Finally, this is taken from an article written in 1940 where Vaughan Williams explores what the role of composers might be in wartime, encouraging them to adjust their aims and provide music “for every fortuitous combination of instruments which may happen to be assembled in a parlour or a dugout with a part for anyone who happens to drop in…whatever this war is, it is not boring…” The special resonance of his words at this particular time need hardly be articulated.


PS: If you are interested in reading his letters, of which there are many hundreds, then they are all available in transcription at What a tour de force and a labour of love!

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