Revisiting Vaughan Williams

Norman Lebrecht takes a short holiday from being acerbic to write a
warm remembrance of Ralph Vaughan Williams on the occasion of a BBC4
broadcast of a film about the composer on May 23rd:

Ralph Vaughan Williams feels to me almost like family. I grew up in the 1950s with his music on the radio and the tales of my older sisters, who were evacuated during the War to sleepy Dorking where he lived in a house at the edge of the town. Beatrice got taken with her class to sing for him at The White Gates on his 70th birthday, in October 1942. ‘Very shabbily dressed,’ she recalls, ‘his socks didn’t match’.

Her impression was confirmed to me recently by a man whose father owned the photographers’ shop on Dorking High Street. ‘He looked like a tramp,’ said Paul Styles. ‘My father stepped out into his path one day and asked if he’d mind sitting for a portrait. He was very gracious about it.’ That session yielded an iconic image, a kindly old chap with a cat on his lap. The cat was called Foxy. This is not the stuff of which Great Composers are typically made.

Nor is this: a mission statement made in 1912 when VW was 40, just beginning to make his name. ‘The Composer,’ he writes, in the magazine of the Royal College of Music, ‘must not shut himself up and think about art; he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole community.’

In the century of the ascendant ego, here is a man who dares to resist the cult of celebrity, to walk humbly with his gift, heedless of his own posterity – so much so that he almost lost it. Where most music goes into limbo for a decade after the composer’s death, VW went out of fashion for half a century after 1958, pushed to the fringes by atonal modernism and aggressively simplistic post-modernism…

…In peacetime, he turned bleak once more. Famous as he was, he refused all official titles and conducted amateur choirs in Dorking with scruffy gusto and unfailing courtesy, always remembering to thank the worst of his singers for their enthusiasm. He strikes me the kind of man whose greatest effort went into concealing his greatness.

I’ve always loved VW’s music. My first exposure to anything beyond “Greensleeves” was the Tallis Fantasia. I heard it on the radio driving home from San Francisco one night as a teenager (I remember listening to it as we passed the airport on Bayshore freeway). I went out and bought the first recording I could find. To my great good fortune, it was the 1963 performance conducted by Sir John Barbirolli – perhaps the most definitive performance of any piece of music ever recorded by anyone. For trivia buffs, by the way, the producer of that recording was, of all people, Bernard Herrman, and it was recorded in the dead of night in the Temple Church, one of London’s oldest churches and a key location in The Da Vinci Code. It’s a recording I still treasure and recommend to anyone who says “Vaughan Williams” in my hearing.

I’ve gotten to play more than the normal amount of Vaughan Williams over the years. I’ve played the solo part in Flos Campi twice, I’ve played the late choral masterpiece Hodie under Sir David Willcocks (who did a wonderful recording of it), and the first three symphonies. But I’ve never gotten to play any of the late symphonies.

The last two in particular are wonderful works, and to my mind rank below only the last four Sibelius symphonies and a few of Shostakovich’s in the pantheon of 20th century symphonies. The 8th has an incredibly beautiful slow movement for strings (and a wonderful Shostakovich-flavored Scherzo for everyone else), while the 9th is a dark, dark work – rather similar in affect to the 4th symphony of Sibelius (who VW greatly admired) and not a piece to listen to on a dark night alone.

It’s not hard, listening to the 9th, to remember that VW was in the trenches during the Great War (as was another artist whose work was greatly affected by his experiences there, JRR Tolkien), and how much those four years turned the world inside out for Victorian England. The pivotal event of the 20th century for this country was WW2; a war which we won at a cost which was far less than either our allies or our opponents paid and which left us the dominant global power for several generations. For England, the pivotal event was the Great War, which not only cost them much of a whole generation, but which they had to re-fight 20 years later, destroying their economy, many of their cities, and their historic place in the world.

There’s got to be a way to program a piece like that. I don’t know if it’s that no one wants to try or simply that most conductors don’t know the piece. But it’s a shame either way.


One Response to “Revisiting Vaughan Williams”

  1. charles Says:

    I’d love to hear the Ninth symphony – it seems to be out of print, too bad…

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