The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Ralph Vaughan Williams


His music is an atmosphere. It does not woo the impressionable senses; it does satisfy all the moods of pleasure-loving and sinful man. The greatness of it comes from a certain order of our national way of living, independent and natural as a growth out of the earth, refreshed by all the weathers and humours and dispositions of the reserved but romantic English.

-- Neville Cardus

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 at Down Ampney, a village near Cricklade in Gloucestershire where his father was vicar. He composed his first work at the age of six and learned the piano, organ and violin as a child. In 1887 he went to Charterhouse, where some of his music was performed at a school concert, and from there to the Royal College of Music to study composition from Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, both composers influenced by Brahms. After two years he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read history and take his Bachelor of. Music. He returned to the college in 1895 as a pupil of Stanford and began his lifelong friendship with another student, Gustav Holst. They shared a determination to be 'English composers' and candidly dissected each other's efforts to find an individual style while at the same time encouraging each other.

Below: The Village Green at Down Ampney

On October 9, 1897, he married Adeline Fisher and during that year, studied with Max Bruch in Berlin.

At the turn of the century Vaughan Williams was known only as composer of a few songs, although one of them, Linden Lea, soon became a favorite with singers, and the Stevenson cycle Songs of Travel (1904) earned him a bigger reputation. From 1902 he was deeply involved in collecting folk-songs. Like many others, he believed that industrialization might cause the country songs to be lost and he acted rather like an archaeologist in his determination to preserve what he could (over 800 folk-songs) of this heritage. Due in part to his interest in preserving folk songs, Williams composed the Folk Song Suite, sometimes called "The English Folk Song Suite" because of its English flavor, in the early 1900's. The suite is in three movement entitled:

  1. March - Seventeen Called Sunday
  2. Intermezzo - My Bonny Boy
  3. March - Folk Song from Somerset

From 1904 to 1906 he and Percy Dearmer also edited of The English Hymnal, himself providing several memorable tunes. The 1933 revised edition kept a similar format and numbering (the plainsong accompaniments were revised, and one or two other adjustments were made throughout the book - look at page xx of the EH 1933 and you'll see what RVW says about it). You may know that the Appendix of Tunes at the back of the book is known in the trade as the Chamber of Horrors, where RVW consigned some of the tunes from the original edition and replaced them with others in the body of the book. It may well be that RVW called it that himself.

Although a short setting of Whitman, Toward the Unknown Region, was well received at the 1907 Leeds Festival, Vaughan Williams was dissatisfied with his work and went for three months to Paris in 1908 for an intensive period of study with Ravel (to "acquire some French Polish"). Ravel later said of Williams that he was "the only pupil who does not write my music".

So effective was this that on his return to England he began to write music of originality and power in an unmistakably individual style. Thus the G minor String Quartet, the 'Shropshire Lad' song-cycle On Wenlock Edge and the great Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for strings were all composed between 1908 and 1910. He also composed delightful incidental music for Aristophanes' The Wasps and completed his large-scale Whitman choral work, A Sea Symphony, which was the outstanding success of the 1910 Leeds Festival. By now he was the acknowledged leader of the post-Elgar generation.

A London Symphony followed in 1914, the year in which, although 42 years of age, he joined the Army, serving throughout the First World War in France and Salonika. He was first posted to France and then Greece, where his close friend George Butterworth killed in action. In 1917, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant, and posted back to France. In 1919, he was demobilized and appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in Oxford.

On his return he gave expression to the emotional experience of the war not in an angry outburst but in the reflective yet ominous quietude of A Pastoral Symphony, sketched in France in 1916 and in reality an orchestral requiem. At the same time came the one-act opera The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, part of his lifelong preoccupation with Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and incorporated in 1951 into the full-scale opera (or 'morality') of that name, and the Mass in G minor for unaccompanied choir, in which he again seemed to reach across the centuries to the era of Byrd and Tallis while remaining firmly anchored in the 20th century

His first opera, which he had completed in 1914 and put away until the war was over, was Hugh the Drover, set in the Cotswolds during the Napoleonic Wars and making use of some folk-songs from his own and others' collections. This was first performed in 1924. A year later he completed the short and incandescent oratorio Sancta Civitas, his own favorite among his choral works and a remarkable example of the concentrated power which his work had by now attained. The contrast between the lyrical charm of Hugh the Drover and the fierce blaze of Sancta Civitas is the contrast between pre- and post-1914 England, but the ballet Old King Cole of 1923 was a further lighthearted excursion into a seam mined from folk-song and dance.

In 1928, he served as co-editor of the Oxford Book of Carols, with Percy Dearmer & Martin Shaw.

Between 1926 and 1939, three more operas were composed, Sir John in Love, his treatment of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, The Poisoned Kiss, almost a musical, and the grim one-act Riders to the Sea, a masterly setting of Synge's play about Aran fisherfolk. A Blake ballet (or masque for dancing), Job, was written in 1930 and became acknowledged both as a concert-hall masterpiece and a landmark in the history of British ballet. In 1934, his close friend Gustav Holst died. In 1935 came the angry Symphony No 4 in F minor, which seemed to reflect a world drifting towards another world war, although that was not the composer's intention. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, he devotes himself to film music, war work, lecturing and writing. In 1941, at an age most people have retired (almost 70), he entered the movies with the score to Michael Powell's '49th Parallel'. He composed 11 motion picture scores.

In 1942, when he celebrated his 70th birthday, he was completing his Fifth Symphony, music which in its beneficence sounded to some listeners like a summing-up, a Nunc Dimittis. But Vaughan Williams was in no mood for farewells. There were 15 more years of prolific composition to follow, including four symphonies (among them the Sinfonia Antarctica of 1952-3, a re-working of music for the film Scott of the Antarctic), the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, produced at Covent Garden in 1951, some choral works and concertos, a violin sonata and several songs. On May 10, 1951, his wife Adeline dies.

In 1952, he writes Romance for Harmonica after meeting Larry Adler. And in 1953, he uses parts of his film score to create Sinfonia Antarctica (No.7). In that year also, he marries Ursula Wood . According to his wife, Williams preferred to be referred to as "Rafe" as he did not like the name "Ralph." (reported by Ruth Cross,

In addition he went to the United States to give lectures, continued to conduct at the annual Leith Hill Festival and elsewhere, and attended concerts, plays or operas almost every night of his life up to its sudden end on 26 August 1958, when he died in his sleep of a heart attack. He personified the pioneering spirit of English music in the 20th century and was an inspiring encourager of the young. He refused all honours except the O.M. and his musical creed was that 'every composer cannot expect to have a worldwide message, but he may reasonable expect to have a special message for his own people'.

Vaughan Williams composed extensively in almost every genre but chamber music. He is one of the great setters of English poetry, and vocal music comprises a large part of his output. Major works include "Five Mystical Songs," "Merciless Beauty," "Sancta Civitas," "Serenade to Music," "Hodie," "10 Blake Songs," and "Dona nobis pacem." He wrote several operas, not one of which has kept the stage: "Hugh the Drover," "The Poisoned Kiss," "Riders to the Sea," "Sir John in Love," and "Pilgrim's Progress." The last three contain magnificent music. "Sir John" in particular is one great tune after another. There's no accounting for taste.

The symphonies, in particular, contain much of Vaughan Williams's range. Not one is like another. Each represents a unique approach to problems of symphonic form. All, however, have great emotional power.

His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey alongside the nation's greatest artists and poets.


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