Ralph Vaughan Williams at 150: A Personal Reminiscence

Tim Farrand
Getty Images

October 12th, 2022 marked the 150th birthday of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. From my earliest musical experiences, I remember being fascinated by Vaughan Williams' sound and his music has been a central line of my musical life ever since. It wasn't necessarily a conscious effort on my part to become so close to his music. Through a process of repeated exposure paired with continued curiosity, a deep connection to the works of one of the most important 20th-century composers emerged quite naturally.

I first encountered Vaughan Williams through my high school piano teacher. He knew I wanted to study orchestral conducting so our lessons became half about piano and half discussing different aspects of the orchestral repertoire. Being a composer himself, these lessons were taught through the lens of a creative artist and did not follow the traditional route of starting in the 18th century with the works of Haydn and Mozart and moving chronologically through surveys of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and other 19-century symphonic giants. Rather, these lessons were a much more personal exploration of works that shaped him as a composer and ended up shaping me as a young musician.

We began, as many do, by looking at Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a pinnacle of symphonic repertoire and a work every young musician has at least a vague awareness of. From there, our next step was to explore the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich, a huge leap in time and setting from Beethoven's Fifth but quite a wonderful way to investigate similar expressive topics through the lens of two very different cultures, each of these works dealing so centrally with the idea of "Fate."

With only my second major orchestral work we were already deep into the 20th century. My next step was to look at the Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives—a symphonic marvel of intense complexity that rarely is dared to be performed—followed by the Sixth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. From the perspective of traditional musical education—and even conventional symphonic programming as Ives and Vaughan Williams rarely see the spotlight—this route seems quite unconventional but from my student perspective it felt perfectly natural and jumpstarted my intense connection with the music of Vaughan Williams and other 20th-century artists.

At the age of 16, I remember listening to the Sixth Symphony of Vaughan Williams on repeat. It was practically all I listened to for several weeks. I vividly remember driving on a dark country road during a late Autumn night. Fierce winds were blowing leaves against my windshield as I made my way to one of my private lessons. The following incredibly stormy music of the first movement blared through the speakers as a fitting soundtrack to the intensity of my evening drive:

This post-World War II symphony seems to convey the utter chaos and destruction facing England and its people. An outcry against the uselessness of war—even though Vaughan Williams insisted it was not a programmatic symphony—the following quote from Act IV of Shakespeare's The Tempest was given by the composer as a way to frame the symphony's last movement titled "Epilogue":

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on;
and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

This haunting movement is the only work I know of that is written entirely within the dynamic of pianissimo which means incredibly soft as if in a hushed tone. The work never strays from that pianissimo, a dynamic generally reserved for very special moments within the larger context of work perhaps as long as a few bars but never an entire movement. Vaughan Williams throughout the score reiterates this dynamic and even writes such cautions that insist that there be no deviation from it. It seems a fitting way to capsulize the end of the War and the speechlessness of a nation almost unrecognizable in its aftermath:

This intense work was my introduction to the expressive capabilities of symphonic music and from there I went on to encounter the broad range of Vaughan Williams' output. From ensemble works to concertos to chamber music, these incredible pieces by a unique composer have simply become a mainstay in my repertoire.

Over the course of the next year or so I will be doing a series of articles that explore Vaughan Williams and the varied nature of his music. The symphonies will play a vital role as they have been at the center of so much of my work with Vaughan Williams but there is so much more to explore. This new AU Series will be titled "Vaughan Williams at 150" and I think it will be a very rewarding experience.

In order to follow along and know when new articles in this series are available, please subscribe to the Arts Undivided Newsletter.

The Lark Ascending


I wish to end this first reminiscence with perhaps the most well-known works of Vaughan Williams and certainly one of the most poetic pieces of music in the entire orchestral repertoire, The Lark Ascending.

This is one of the works I find myself continually coming back to as a listener in order to enter into that transcendent realm evoked by these simple notes. I first encountered it on the radio. I was driving through town as it began (so many of my memories of Vaughan Williams seem to be tied with driving). Those almost otherworldly first notes captivated my attention and I was spellbound. I arrived at my location but couldn't get myself to stop. I continued on, driving further from town and deeper into the idyllic countryside. Tears filled my eyes and something in me became uplifted. I missed my class but gained one of my closest musical connections.

The work takes its name from the poem by George Meredith that inspired the work. Vaughan Williams placed the following 12 lines of the 122-line poem at the head of the score:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
'Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Vaughan Williams' wife Ursula wrote that the composer had "taken a literary idea on which to build his musical thought … and had made the violin become both the bird's song and its flight, being, rather than illustrating the poem from which the title was taken."

This work of poetry doesn't need much in terms of introduction except the simple invitation to give yourself over to the places it takes you:

October 13, 2022

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