Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: And Please, Don’t Call Me “Ralph”!

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) in 1921

We mark the birth on October 12, 1872 – 148 years ago today – of the English composer, conductor, folksong collector and teacher Ralph (R-A-L-P-H, pronounced “Rayf”) Vaughan Williams in the village of Down Ampney, in the Cotswold district of Gloucester, 75 miles west of London. He died in London at the age of 85, on August 26, 1958.

A confession: I came to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams fairly late in my life. Sure, like most of us, I had heard his “greatest hits”; there was a time that when listening to a “Classical” radio station you couldn’t go a day without hearing one of them: the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910); The Lark Ascending (1914); and his Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934). But it wasn’t until I was researching and writing my Teaching Company/Great Courses survey The Symphony (which was recorded in October 2003) that I made a comprehensive study of his works, in this case, his symphonies.

I was floored, and not for the first time – and I pray to heaven, not for the last – I experienced revelation: this fantastic repertoire, this whole new world of wonderful music that had been there the whole time, right under my nose, was now mine for the experience and the taking.

Generally speaking, and with noted exceptions (like Gustav Holst’s The Planets and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations),English music gets short shrift in the United States. Over time, we will do what we can to remedy that. Two weeks ago, we celebrated Gustav Holst; this week, Vaughan Williams; in the near future my Dr. Bob Prescribes post will tackle the Piano Concerto in E-flat major (1930) of John Ireland (1879-1962), and from there we’ll see where things go.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was a big, bluff, lantern-jawed bear of a man whose thin lips and long nose gave him the forbidding look of an English parson, little surprise, really, given that he was the son of a vicar, the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams (1834–1875).

Bluff Ralph Vaughan Williams may have been, but forbidding he was certainly not. He was, in fact, as admirable a man as any to ever have put pen to manuscript paper. A highly moral, socially progressive man (meaning a liberal), he had a deep and abiding belief in music as a moral tool and civilizing force, something that should be available to anyone and everyone. Writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Hugh Ottaway explains:

“His outlook was human and social. He never forgot that music was for people; he was interested in every situation, however humble, for which music was needed; and his feeling for genuinely popular traditions amounted to a reverence that was almost religious. Throughout a public life of more than 60 years, Vaughan Williams engaged in a wide range of musical activities, sometimes of a kind that many lesser composers would have considered beneath them.”

For example, Vaughan Williams invested a tremendous amount of his creative time and energy composing works for amateurs and students. He freely gave his time and support to a wide variety of English musical organizations and educational institutions, from the most prestigious to the humblest. Offered a knighthood, he turned it down. Offered the post of “Master of the King’s Music” in 1935 after the death of Edward Elgar (1857-1934), he turned it down. The only state honor he was willing to accept was the “Order of Merit” (abbreviated as “OM”), which conferred no prenominal title; to his dying day, Vaughan Williams preferred to be known simply as “Dr. Vaughan Williams.” (The “Dr.” was not an honorific; he earned a doctorate in music from Cambridge in 1901.)

(For our information: in a letter to his friend, the composer Rutland Boughton, Vaughn Williams explained why he accepted the “Order of Merit”:

“I have always refused all honors and appointments which involved obligation to anyone in authority – the OM involved no such obligation.”)

Vaughan Williams was particularly enamored of a quote by the German statesman Gustav Ernst Stresemen (1878-1929), who served as the Chancellor of the Weimar Republic in 1923 and was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926. It is a quote that described Vaughan Williams himself to the proverbial “T”:

“The man who serves humanity best is he who, rooted in his own nation, develops his moral and spiritual endowments to their highest capacity, so that growing beyond the limits of his own nation he is able to give something to the whole of humanity.”

According to his second wife Ursula, Vaughan Williams was “a cheerful agnostic”; a non-conformist who believed in “humanity.”

He was the youngest of three children born to a well-to-do and well-connected family. His father – Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams – came from a line of eminent lawyers and judges. His mother, Margaret (1842–1937, née Wedgwood) was the great-granddaughter of Josiah Wedgewood (who created that wonderful line of English sculptural pottery that today bears his name); she was as well a niece of Charles Darwin.…

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