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Ralph Vaughan Williams championed folk song and England’s Tudor composers

Posted in Historical articles, History, Music on Friday, 27 September 2013

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This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, picture. image, illustration

Ralph Vaughan Williams by Ralph Bruce

Every day before breakfast young Ralph Vaughan Williams went down to the spacious hall in his home in the Surrey countryside. There, while the servants were starting their daily duties, he would sit and play the organ which his widowed mother had specially installed for him. The son of a Gloucestershire vicar, Ralph was given music lessons by one of his aunts, and by the time he was eight he was proficient on both piano and the violin. At school he also learnt to play the viola and in 1890, when he was aged 18, he went to study at the Royal College of Music in London.

At first, his own compositions were based mainly on the work of established composers. Realising this, he criticised himself for writing stale, second-hand music, and in 1902 he declared that: “What we want in England is real music, even if it be only a music-hall song.”

Already Vaughan Williams was becoming noted as an expert in English folksongs. He collected the songs peculiar to each district, and, in 1906, he published his three Norfolk Rhapsodies, which were orchestral pieces based upon tunes he had learnt from the east coast fishermen. After spending some months in Paris, where he was helped and advised by the famous French composer, Maurice Ravel, the young Englishman wrote the first of his eight symphonies, the powerful and boisterous Sea Symphony.

In 1914, the composer was 41 years old, but this did not stop him volunteering for military duty in the First World War. He was posted to Greece, where he was able to study other kinds of folk music, and on his return to civilian life he was made an Honorary Doctor of Music at Oxford University. Although his overture to Aristophanes’s stage comedy, The Wasps, is one of his best-known works, Vaughan Williams gradually became more interested in writing for the cinema. He composed the music for such prestige films as Scott of the Antarctic.

He died in 1958 at the age of 85, leaving a treasury of melody.

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