10 (little) things (maybe) you didn’t know about the British composer

Born at a time when British composers were rarely considered among the greatest in Europe, Ralph Vaughan Williams today enjoys largely unparalleled popularity and prestige by his contemporaries. He is now recognized as one of the UK’s greatest composers. Here are 10 things you might not know about Ralph Vaughan Williams (pronounced “Rif von Williams”).

Typical British music

Ralph Vaughan Williams has been slow to find his musical sound. This is not surprising when you consider the British music scene at the time. In the 19th century, cross-channel music was still largely influenced by German style and models, notably Mendelssohn and Brahms. Vaughan Williams would be one of the first musicians to oppose this European influence.

From an early age, young Ralph studied piano and violin but also collected traditional folk songs. These melodies will be the main inspiration for many of his later works. Deeply influenced by folk songs as well as by Tudor music of the past, his language will embody the essence of British heritage and musical pride.

British pro, yes. Anti-Germanic, no

Yes, music inspired by British heritage but without rejecting the influence and importance of German music. Indeed, Vaughan Williams openly stated in his writings his admiration for the work of Brahms, Schumann, and Wagner:

After Schumann, it was impossible to contact him forever “Music” new art; The dramatic element had to be recognized as having the same importance as music. To complete this new art, only one step was needed – to install it in his home, the theater – and it was done by Richard Wagner. Therefore, Wagner is not a monster of nature standing outside the line of evolution, but the logical consequence of the Romantic movement in music. Written in an open letter for publication Music October 13, 1897.

Such admiration for Wagner’s work did not prevent him from noticing the sometimes excessive habits of the German composer: ” Wagner read the full texts of Oprah to his friends. I’m glad I wasn’t there! Can we read in his collection of writings National music and other articles (1987).




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Uncle Darwin

Ralph Vaughan Williams, born in the village of Down Ambney, Gloucestershire, wasn’t the only British star in his family. His uncle was none other than the naturalist and paleontologist Charles Darwin, brother of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ paternal grandmother. Ralph’s grandmother even taught him to read using the same primer that she taught her younger brother.

Uncle Charles’ new book was published in 1859, Origin of Species, did not fail to create some waves within the faithful Ralph family, as well as in the Anglican community in general. In response to Ralph’s questions to his grandmother about the disputed book, she replied: ” The Bible tells us that God created the world in six days. Great Uncle Charles thinks it took a little longer.” !

Best friends give the best reviews

In 1897, Vaughan Williams took advantage of his honeymoon in Berlin to meet the famous Max Brusch and became his student for a few months. Still not satisfied with his style, our British composer went to Paris in hopes of studying with Vincent d’Indy. Instead of the latter, he meets Maurice Ravel, who agrees to take him among his few students. The courses would last about three months during the winter of 1907-1908, four or five times a week.

But with his friend Gustav Holst, Vaughan Williams will master his art better. Both students at the Royal College of Music in 1895 soon forged bonds around their shared passion. Close friends, they will also be the fiercest music critics for each other. In fact, composers are often the first audience for each other’s works and they never hesitate to share their honest and sometimes sharp opinions. This strong bond allows them to work on their ideas and develop their musical sounds.




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Before and after the war

Although his age allowed him to be exempted from mobilization, Ralph Vaughan Williams volunteered throughout World War I, first as a nurse and then in an artillery regiment, in France and Greece, at Salonica. Shot for several months, he suffered a progressive hearing loss that eventually led to severe deafness in the last years of his life.

The horrors of the Great War would also have a mental impact on Vaughan Williams. Upon returning from the war, he began to explore a more intense and intimidating musical style, as in his own country. Symphony No. 4. But his military experience had not only a negative effect: the composer in particular retained a favorable and nostalgic memory of the military orchestra, which he considered to be of crucial importance to cultural and societal life in the United Kingdom.

An atheist but author of religious works

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ father, Arthur, is a pastor of the church in his hometown. Despite this spiritual family situation, Ralph Vaughan Williams will be openly neutral from an early age. However, Vaughan Williams’ many compositions with religious and spiritual themes are among his best. Not least ironically, he contributed to the publication of the Official Hymns of the Church of England in 1904, English hymns.

despite his atheism which later turned into what his wife Ursula would describe” I don’t know happy Vaughan Williams often finds his musical inspiration in the liturgy and music of the Anglican Church. He wrote the opera privately Hajj’s progress [Le Voyage du pèlerin], about the Allegorical Romanticism of the Baptist preacher John Bunyan of 1678, and is one of the most important works of English theology. After World War I, his spiritual inspiration increased and he wrote, among other things, his choral symphony Campy money (1925) on quotes from Song of songsrhetoric Sancta Civitas and ballet professionInspired by the Book of Job.

Music for people and for people

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ passion for folk music and choral singing goes beyond the beauty of melodies. This music embodies and represents a deeper ideological conviction: music is a human affair, by people, for people. The composer would never take his privileged childhood for granted, and he would never stop advocating democratic and egalitarian ideals throughout his life. According to the composer, music is also part of the everyday life of every man and woman, and not the prerogative of one elite.

Firmly adhering to social and human values, and despite his political convictions, the latter did not hesitate to criticize the left in his country, denouncing in particular his post-war rapprochement with the Soviet Union, an unfair and deceptive rapprochement according to the author.




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A serious man with a sense of humor

Pictures and testimonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams often depict a very serious composer. But behind this facade hides a character full of generous and even often self-deprecating humor. ” The audience is asked not to refrain from speaking during the opening. Otherwise, he will know all the melodies before the opera begins We can read, for example, in the opera program The poisoned kiss (1936).

In a recorded message to the London Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Sir Adrian Bolt, on the occasion of the recording of Symphony No. 6, Vaughan Williams congratulates the musicians in his own way on the quality of their interpretation: ” I would like to thank you and your conductor, Sir Adrian Bolt, with all my heart for what a wonderful musical experience it has been for me. In fact, in some cases your play was so obvious that all my flaws surfaced. I hope you show some virtues too! »

Lover of non-standard gadgets

Always wanting to get off the beaten track, Ralph Vaughan Williams never hesitates to include in his work the most unusual machines of his time. Thus, many of his pieces require the saxophone, and even on the treble saxophone Symphony No. 9. However, he will add in his note on intent: You’re not supposed to use saxophones, except maybe somewhere in the Scherzo*, act like crazy cats, but are allowed to be themselves and romantic. * “

As he resumes in his own Third Symphony To a silent soprano, a battery of gongs and bells in his own Eighth Symphony. Aficionados of unusual sounds, it also signs a Concerto Tubaa Romance for the harmonica and even a Suite for group recorder.

Heirs of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams withdrew in 1958. He married twice and left this world childless. But today there is a new generation of heirs. In 1956, two years before his death, the composer and his wife Ursula founded the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust to support the work of fellow composers.

Funded by royalties from performing his music, the Foundation has awarded around £6 million in grants, with an average of £2,200 per grant, and that alone in the past 20 years. Thus new generations of British composers could hatch and continue to promote British musical traditions.


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