Vaughan Williams: British music, English music

Ralph Vaughan Williams is perhaps Britain’s greatest ever classical composer, but he remains something of an outsider in the world of classical music. His tunes are perhaps a little too tuneful, lowering the tone by appealing rather too readily to those uninitiated into what one should like and value.

All the more reason to love and value him and his music I say.

The companion piece to this one focused on Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony, a furious piece which, for me, evokes the current travails of the Labour Party and wider left in Britain. I was going to add a few lines to that piece suggesting some more tunes of Vaughan Williams that readers might like to check out. But those few lines became a few paragraphs and then several paragraphs. So here we are...

The first thing I wanted to do was showcase music of a different character to the 6th Symphony. The 6th is probably my favourite of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, at least in that version, but it is by no means typical. 

A good alternative place to start is the ‘London’ Symphony, which offers a wonderful tableau of Britain's capital city immediately before the First World War. It still has great resonance today – from the hustle and bustle of the first movement to the beautiful second movement and depictions of the poor and unemployed in the last. Also in the years before World War One, Vaughan Williams, a committed socialist, wrote his most loved shorter pieces: the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending (the latter completed after the war and evoking the sound of freedom – delicate, fragile and precious).

Normally you would advise people not to check under the line for comments on videos and articles. The opposite is the case with Vaughan Williams; scroll downwards from each of these videos and you will find a cascade of love and appreciation, both for the music and for those who lovingly compile images to go with it - and not just from England or Britain but from all over the world.

The music that people love and appreciate mirrors the person. By all accounts Vaughan Williams was a generous, ebullient and humorous man, and also someone who was prepared to commit himself. In his forties, he volunteered for military service in the First World War when he wasn’t required to and served as a stretcher bearer on the Somme. His ‘Pastoral’ Symphony written following the war reflects on that time; a reserved, enigmatic piece, it finally breaks down during the final movement (which starts at 24.15 on that link and at 27.40 on this live version from the Proms, featuring, unusually, a male soloist). He lost many good friends during that war, including fellow composers.

But during the Second World War and into his seventies, Vaughan Williams did a different sort of war work, composing music for films including 49th Parallel, a 1941 picture intended to draw support from the United States when the US was still officially neutral. In 1943, he released his 5th Symphony, for many people his best, including the beautiful third movement, the Romanza.

Despite the crashing brutality of the 6th Symphony and the 4th Symphony, which he composed in the 1930s while Hitler was gaining prominence, it is principally beauty and sweetness that marks out Vaughan Williams’ contribution to British and world music. So much of that comes from the folk songs and poetry that he sought out (often over lashings of ale), as found in the lullaby-like Welsh hymn Rhosymedre, the English Folk Song Suite, the Norfolk Rhapsodies, including No. 2 here and also his many choral works, including adaptations of George Herbert’s ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ and the Scottish Burns song Ca’ The Yowes.

I am still discovering these wonderful works for myself: an ongoing joy and pleasure. I hope others feel the same. But I also hope Vaughan Williams’ music and that of others might help to inform our politics, by showing elements of ourselves to ourselves – elements that we have maybe not known before but would like to preserve and treasure (as Vaughan Williams himself looked to do with what he discovered).

Also, an important point from Vaughan Williams himself: just because I love and write about this music, that doesn’t mean it's mine. It's for anyone and everyone to love and enjoy and interpret as they like.


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