Ralph Vaughan Williams

I went through a phase when I loved “Greensleeves” and would listen to all sorts of variations and interpretations of the song. Except for one. That one I didn’t like because it didn’t have as much of the melody as I wanted.

The version above is, in my view, a little too slow. I recently heard it performed much more as a waltz and less of the Christmas lullaby (“What Child is This?”) spirit, and I liked it better.

It wasn’t until about ten or fifteen years ago that I really got interested in Ralph Vaughan Williams, aside from growling about some of his hymn arrangements that were written for use in stone churches with minimum of three-second echoes (you need that time to be able to move your hands into position for the next phrase and not have an unwanted pause in the music.) I hadn’t really appreciated his larger body of work until I started listening to his symphonies and other things. He has a lush, thoughtful sound that speaks to me, a bit like a less hurried Elgar or Holst.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 into a family of the middle-middle class, although his mother was descended from Josiah Wedgwood. He grew up with music and literature all around him, and his father’s job as a Church of England minister probably had something to do with the boy being steered away from viola and violin to organ. He studied with Sir Hubert Parry, who encouraged Williams to look into the English musical tradition. A whole lot of people are grateful for that advice, because Vaughan Williams took English music and made it amazing. He also studied history, and after a brief tour abroad, returned to England. There he discovered folk tunes. The turn of the 19th-20th century was a time of much work collecting folk music in a race against time, and Vaughan Williams dove in.

In 1910 he premiered the work “Tallis Fantasia,” sometimes called “Variations on a theme by Thomas Tallis,” using a hymn written by Tallis (a great English Renaissance composer) as his base. It was a smashing success, and remains probably his second best known work in the US. (And elsewhere, but be ready: the room will get very, very dusty: http://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.com/2008/09/musical-interlude.html )

Vaughan Williams served in the Army during WWI in the medical corps, in part due to his age. He returned to music after the war and continued composing, performing, and collecting folk music. He remained active until his death in 1958.

His music has a lushness and depth that, as mentioned above, is like that of Holst, Elgar, and Gerald Finzie, but more melodic (in my opinion). Although it is hard to find much melodic in his war composition Dona Nobis Pacem, which takes words from Walt Whitman’s “Dirge for Two Veterans.” The music matches Whitman’s lyrics quite well – although for those of us who are not so fond of Whitman or dissonance, it’s not a fun composition to perform or to listen to. I’ve done it twice and it still challenges me and not in happy ways.

I happen to greatly enjoy English music from the late 1800s – 1950s or so, especially the more traditional composers, and have grown to relish Vaughan Williams. There’s an unapologetic depth and sensuality to his writing; long sweeps of glorious, beautiful, rich sound that roll like the sea or the green hills of England. He loved words, he loved music, and he made no bones about writing what he enjoyed and about loving England too. In a way he’s a bit of a Romantic, but not a blind one. And he made full use of whatever instrument or instruments he wrote for, something I appreciate even when I curse under my breath because the churches I play organ in have no echoes and his hymn settings make me sound clunky. Sorry sir, it’s me, not you.


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