Ralph Vaughan Williams at 150: a champion of music education
Posted on 14th October 2022 at 12:35
Even if you are not familiar with classical music, you will undoubtedly have heard the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis consistently appear in the top 10 of Classic FM’s listener polls, and he is considered one of the quintessential composers of British history.
Yet his music still divides opinion, and for many years, much of his output was neglected. Alongside these most famous pieces, Vaughan Williams wrote a huge variety of works including operas, ballets, chamber music, vocal pieces and orchestral compositions, with nine symphonies to his name. This month, we mark the 150th anniversary of his birth with a look back at his musical life.
An English composer with an English style
Vaughan Williams was born into a wealthy, socially progressive family where intellectual curiosity was the norm, and music was part of daily life. Having been taught piano and violin from an early age, he wrote his first composition before the age of 10, and continued to pursue music throughout his school career, eventually enrolling at the Royal College of Music.
It took the composer some time to find his voice, however. He was in his late 30s when two of his compositions – the Tallis Fantasia and his Sea Symphony – premiered to critical acclaim, and he began to make a name for himself. He was influenced by Tudor music and traditional folk songs, and his sound was distinctly English, marking a break with the German style that was dominant at the time.
You can hear a folk influence in his very first published composition from 1901, Linden Lea, which set William Barnes’ poem to music for voice and piano:
In fact, it was after this that he began collecting folk songs, spending time with people from all walks of life transcribing the songs that had been passed down over the years, in an effort to preserve them as oral traditions died out. It was not only the melodies, but the modes (musical scales) typically used in folk music that inspired him, and he wove elements of this ‘music of the people’ into his own works.
In 1908 he studied with the French composer Ravel, an experience that he said helped free him from the prevailing Teutonic influences of the time. Many commentators note a new-found confidence in the music that he produced after this, with lighter and sharper textures.
It’s not ‘cowpat’ music!
Vaughan Williams was part of a tradition known as ‘pastoral music’, a name that summons images of sedate countryside landscapes. Critics who dismiss the style as boring and unchallenging often use a more derogatory name: ‘cowpat music’. But is this fair?
His best-known work, The Lark Ascending, is indeed intended to evoke images of nature, and was inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name. As the title suggests, the solo violin represents a lark’s spiralling flight, with the orchestra providing the scenic backdrop as it rises ever higher.
It’s a beautifully serene piece of music that is often chosen to soothe and lift spirits in times of trouble. But it is by no means representative of his full body of work. Take Symphony no. 4, which feels entirely different, with an opening movement that is startling, dissonant, and anything but serene:
Both works are packed with emotion, in a very direct, accessible way – and perhaps this is the critics’ bugbear. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives programme, broadcaster Stuart Maconie reflected: “Vaughan Williams has a directness, but I sometimes think he gets undervalued because of that directness, like lots of other people who make memorable work. Paul McCartney is a good comparison – he’s often undervalued compared to John Lennon because his works are so graceful and apparently easy, but in fact it takes an enormous amount of talent to do that.”
The influence of war
Vaughan Williams lived through two World Wars, and although he said his music was not a reflection of the world around him, he admitted that A Pastoral Symphony was heavily influenced by his experiences in World War I. Despite being too old to be conscripted, he volunteered for military service and the symphony was conceived while he was on active duty in France – an experience that left a lasting impression.
He wrote: “It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset – it’s not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted.”
Later, with World War II brewing, critics noted that much of his output had a darker, more violent mood. Symphony no. 4, first performed in 1935, was a prime example: despite his assertions that it was unrelated to external events, it is difficult to hear its opening bars without thinking of the turbulent times he was living in.
Music for everyone
Throughout his career, he held a strong belief that not only should music be for everyone, but that everyone should be involved in making music. He demonstrated this belief in many ways: through his interest in folk songs of the people, and in his dedication as a teacher, where his open-minded nature encouraged his students to pursue new styles of music. As well as complex, demanding pieces, he wrote many simpler compositions for amateur musicians or choirs with limited resources.
One enduring legacy is the Leith Hill Music Festival, set up by his sister Margaret as a competition for village choirs near their family home in Surrey, and still running today. Vaughan Williams acted as conductor from its inception in 1905 until 1953, and continued to visit the choirs’ rehearsals even after handing over the baton.
Here at The Music Workshop Company, we certainly agree with his philosophy that music should be for all. We are sure he would be delighted that 150 years after his birth, his music is still being used to inspire school children.
It’s said that Vaughan Williams’ family did not believe he had the ability to make a career in music, but that on seeing his passion for the subject, they encouraged him nevertheless. Perhaps this is why he in turn was such a champion of others. Certainly, our musical world would be poorer today, and would sound very different, without him.
Further reading and resources
You can find more information in some of our earlier blog posts:
This article takes a look at Leith Hill Place, his childhood home and the setting for the Leith Hill Music Festival: https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/the-national-trust-at-125-%E2%80%93-honouring-british-composers/
This post explores the history of folk music, including its influence on Vaughan Williams: https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/english-folk-music-%E2%80%93-understanding-our-roots/
You can read more about the influence of war on his music here: https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/music-and-the-great-war/
This post looks at the legacy of one of his students, Dr Ruth Gipps: https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/the-legacy-of-dr-ruth-gipps/
And this article looks at the life of Sir Henry Wood, who was responsible for introducing Vaughan Williams to Proms audiences: https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/movers-and-shakers-sir-charles-hall%C3%A9-and-sir-henry-wood/
And there are lots of other resources online:
The Music Teachers Association has a range of resources for teaching Vaughan Williams’ work from Early Years Foundation Stage through to Key Stage 5. http://www.musicteachers.org/rvw150
You can find the original poem that inspired The Lark Ascending at https://allpoetry.com/The-Lark-Ascending
This piece from the Royal College of Music reflects on Vaughan Williams’ approach to teaching and mentoring: https://www.rcm.ac.uk/upbeat/articles/vaughanwilliamsanotherperspective.aspx
The Leith Hill Music Festival still takes place every year in April: http://www.lhmf.org.uk/
This 2012 episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives programme reflects on Vaughan Williams’ life and career: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b01pfxj3
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