The E-BNR aims to build a comprehensive & unique cross-artform guide to
the British neo-Romantic tradition,
from 1880 to the present day.
While the British Romantics of 1789-1824 have spawned a vast industry of
publishers, conferences & tourism, the later neo-Romantic traditions
remain largely neglected. The E-BNR is aimed at bringing this hidden
tradition to light.
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WHAT IS NEO-ROMANTICISM ?
Neo-Romantic artists have drawn their inspiration
from artists of the age of Romanticism or earlier.
Characteristic themes in their work include a
mystical approach to the British landscape...
ENTRY: Vaughan Williams, Ralph
Ralph Vaughan Williams, (b. October 12, 1872 – d. August 26, 1958) was an influential
British composer, conductor, and organist. He was a student at the Royal College of Music and
Trinity College, Cambridge and served as a lieutenant in World War I. He wrote nine
symphonies between 1910 and 1958 as well as numerous other works including chamber
music, opera, choral music and film scores. He was also a collector of British folk
music and served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS).
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father, the Rev.
Arthur Vaughan Williams, was rector. Following his father's death in 1875 he was taken by
his mother, Margaret Susan Wedgwood (1843–1937), the great grand daughter of the potter
Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, the Wedgwood family home
in the North Downs. He was also related to the Darwins, Charles Darwin being a
He schooled at Charterhouse then attended the Royal College of Music (RCM) under
Charles Villiers Stanford. There he met fellow student and lifelong friend Holst.
He read history and music at Cambridge University, where his
friends and contemporaries included the philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell.
He then returned to the RCM and studied composition with Hubert Parry, who became a
close friend. His composing developed slowly and it was not until he was aged thirty
that the song "Linden Lea" became his first publication. He mixed composition with
conducting, lecturing and editing other music, notably that of Henry Purcell and t
he English Hymnal. He had further lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897
and later a big step forward in his orchestral style occurred when he studied in
Paris with Maurice Ravel.
In 1904 he discovered English folk songs, which were fast becoming extinct as an oral tradition owing to
the increase of literacy and printed music in rural areas. He collected many
himself and edited them. He also incorporated some into his music, being fascinated by the
beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working lives of ordinary people.
In 1907 he had his first big
public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
(at The Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral) and A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1),
and a greater success with A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) in 1914, conducted
by Geoffrey Toye.
Although at 40 he could easily have
avoided war service or been commissioned as an officer, he enlisted as a private
in the Royal Army Medical Corps and had a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer
before being commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery. On one occasion
he was too ill to stand but continued to direct his battery lying on the ground.
Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of loss of hearing which was
eventually to cause deafness in old age. In 1918 he was appointed Director
of Music, First Army and this helped him adjust back into musical life.
After the war he adopted for a while a profoundly mystical style in the
Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) and Flos Campi, a work for
viola solo, small orchestra, and wordless chorus.
In essence, however, his is
characteristically English music forming part of a certain
genre alongside works by the likes of Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, William Walton and others.
If that Englishness in music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be:
ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical,
melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.
Ackroyd quotes Fuller Maitland, who noted that in Vaughan Williams's style
"one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new."
Vaughan Williams's music expresses a deep regard for and fascination
with folk tunes, the variations upon which can convey the listener
from the down-to-earth (which VW always tried to remain in his
daily life) to that which is ethereal. Simultaneously the music
is patriotic of the British Isles in the subtlest form engendered
by a feeling for ancient landscapes and a person's small yet not entirely insignificant place within them.
From 1924 a new phase in his music began, characterised by lively cross-rhythms
and clashing harmonies. This period in his music
culminated in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, first played by the BBC
Symphony Orchestra in 1935. Two years later Vaughan Williams made
a historic recording of the work with the same orchestra, one of
his very rare commercial recordings. During this period he lectured
in America and England, and conducted the Bach Choir. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1935.
His music now entered a mature lyrical phase, as in the Five Tudor Portraits;
the "morality" The Pilgrim's Progress; the Serenade to Music (a setting of
a scene from act five of The Merchant of Venice, for orchestra and
sixteen vocal soloists and composed as a tribute to the conductor
Sir Henry Wood); and the Symphony No. 5 in D, which he conducted
at the Proms in 1943. As he was now 70, many people considered it
a swan song, but he renewed himself again and entered yet another
period of exploratory harmony and instrumentation. Before his
death in 1958 he completed four more symphonies, including
No. 7 Sinfonia Antartica, based on his 1948 film score for
Scott of the Antarctic. He also completed a range of
instrumental and choral works, including a tuba concerto,
An Oxford Elegy on texts of Matthew Arnold, and the Christmas cantata Hodie.
At his death he left an unfinished Cello Concerto, an opera Thomas the
Rhymer and music for a Christmas play, The First Nowell, which was
completed by his amanuensis Roy Douglas (b. 1907). He also wrote
an arrangement of The Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune for the Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth II.
Despite his substantial involvement in church music, and the
religious subject-matter of many of his works, he was described
by his second wife as "an atheist - [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism."
It's noteworthy that in his opera The Pilgrim's Progress he changed the name
of the hero from Bunyan's Christian to Pilgrim. For many church-goers,
his most familiar composition may be the tune Sine Nomine for the hymn "For All the Saints".
He died in 1958 and is buried in Westminister Abbey.
Vaughan Williams is a central figure in British music because of his
long career as teacher, lecturer and friend to so many younger
composers and conductors. His writings on music remain thought-provoking,
particularly his oft-repeated call for everyone to make their own music,
however simple, as long as it is truly their own.
Peter Ackroyd. Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (see the chapter "English Music").
Ursula Wood. RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams.