An aging Ralph Vaughan Williams said that he was born with “a very small silver spoon in my mouth.” He was reflecting on his privileged social standing (in a nation fixated on class differences) and on his own self-doubts, sometimes echoed by contemporary music critics, about his musical talents. Although many of his forebears had been lawyers, his father chose the church and was the vicar of Down Ampney when Vaughan Williams was born, in 1872. His father died when Ralph was two years old, and his mother took him to live in her family home. The family were upper-class intellectuals – his mother was a Wedgwood and a niece of Charles Darwin – who valued cultural activities, and music was an essential component of daily life. His aunt taught him the piano (he was characteristically quoted as saying, “I never could play.”). Violin lessons, which he liked much better, followed. But unlike many great composers, he had no particular musical background in his family, nor was he a child prodigy or a gifted composer as a young adult. Instead, he developed his gifts slowly and with great effort.
When Vaughan Williams was coming of age, Britain was a leading world power and an intellectual force, though, strangely, second-rate musically. Purcell was the last great English composer, and he lived in the mid-1600s. Handel and Mendelssohn, although adopted by the English court and people as their own, were Europeans. Opera was exclusively German and Italian. The late Victorian composers were determined to create an “English” music, and this goal consumed Vaughan Williams. Not only was he determined to be an “English” composer, he was the picture of a perfect English gentleman, always dressed in tweeds and exuding an air of thoughtful reserve. He studied music at the Royal Conservatory and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Early in his career, he edited a hymnbook, published in 1906. It became the official English hymnal, and its universal use in Church of England services made him a major influence on the British psyche. As Dvorák and Bartók had done with musical ethnological work in Europe, so Vaughan Williams researched and collected English folk songs. Many of these were the melodic seeds for the hymns he wrote and for his early compositions. Rather than follow the avant-garde composers like Schönberg into the atonal world, he sought out ancient Greek musical modes – music he believed would sound more English than continental. His desire to participate in the creation of “English” music linked him to the small but growing group of British composers trying to rid themselves of the Teutonic and Italian influences that ruled Western music. Through his social connections, his perseverance, and the steadfast cultivation of his talent, Vaughan Williams became a leader in this cause.
Despite these achievements, he was never confident of his own musical abilities, and he had a low opinion of a few of his colleagues, too. He is reputed to have referred to the young Benjamin Britten’s music as “clever but beastly.” (Britten himself thought Vaughan Williams’ music was blighted by “technical incompetence” and characterized his own music as a “struggle away from everything Vaughan Williams seemed to stand for.”)
Persistent in doing anything that would improve his abilities, even at 37 and well established as a composer, Vaughan Williams sought out teachers who could improve his compositional style and capacity. With characteristic self-denigration, he described his music as “lumpy and stodgy” and echoed critics’ descriptions of his rhythms as awkward and his orchestrations as amateurish. He reached out to the composer Maurice Ravel, in France, two years his junior, for help, and it was under Ravel’s tutelage that he finally released his own sound. But all through his life, he still relied on colleagues for review and editing, especially Gustav Holst, his musical peer and closest friend. Both men continued to critique each other’s compositions from their youth until Holst’s early death when Vaughan Williams was 60.
Vaughan Williams’ secure life – he never had to work for a living – and his Anglo-centric worldview were severely shaken by two successive wars. The first shock was the Boer War, in which the brother of his young wife, Adeline, suffered a long and painful death, and the coming of World War I changed him and his whole generation. He was 42 when the war began, but he insisted on enlisting and became a wagon transporter of the wounded and dead (in time he did receive an officer’s commission). His wartime experiences are reflected in the Walt Whitman poem that he set to music in his Dona Nobis Pacem. His fellow soldiers were fond of him and appreciated his commitment and loyalty as well as the choral concerts he organized to cheer the troops.
Vaughan Williams’ selflessness and modesty give us a window into his personality. He was not fond of personal display and was embarrassed by the prizes and titles he was offered. He turned down a knighthood but did accept a prize for conspicuous achievement in the arts awarded by Hamburg University in 1937, a great honor because it indicated that he had a growing audience abroad. In his letter of acceptance, he quieted his conscience over accepting an honor from the Nazi regime by stating his disapproval of German politics. Within 18 months, his music was blacklisted by the Third Reich.
Vaughan Williams’ marriage was by all descriptions a good one: very English and a match of good families and accommodating temperaments. But Adeline became crippled with arthritis, and the two led increasingly separate lives. The death of his closest colleague, Holst, also increased his sense of isolation and loneliness. He came to feel that he had dried up musically. He was wrong. One of his astonishing characteristics was his capacity for lifelong, steady improvement, and his best works, now more and more inspired by the emotions and horrors of war, came as he aged.
In the winter of 1935-36, when Vaughan Williams was 63, he began work on Dona Nobis Pacem. Its tone of lamentation, anguish, and regret reflect his agitation with world events. In this composition, he was no longer just a British composer – his choice of the war poem by Whitman, a nurse during the American Civil War, shows that he was now reaching out to the world. In the years leading up to World War II, this work was performed frequently, often with Vaughan Williams as the conductor.
At the age of 65, Vaughan Williams met Ursula Wood, then 27 and the wife of a soldier. She had written a scenario for a masque that Vaughan Williams agreed to set to music. She was smitten by him and his music and became a regular musical and social companion. When Ursula’s husband died, Ralph and Adeline invited Ursula to live in their home. After Adeline’s death, Ralph asked Ursula to take over the management of his domestic affairs. They were married in 1953, when Ursula was 41 and he was 80. Freed from the bonds of Adeline’s illness and confinement at home, Vaughan Williams experienced the pleasures of travel as well as the musical inspiration awakened by a new and young companion.
When Vaughan Williams died in his sleep in 1958, at the age of 86, he was readying his Ninth Symphony for performance. His legacy was immense: his music, his humane spirit, and his major role in freeing England from its centuries of musical doldrums and helping to produce a new generation of English composers. Although during his long life he grew in self-confidence, that feeling of the “little silver spoon” never quite left him. To his great credit, he transformed this self-doubt into a lifelong devotion to self-improvement. He always seemed to know that his genius could go as far as his own determined efforts could take him.
— Pilar Montero & Arthur Colman
- Foreman, Lewis, editor. Ralph Vaughan Williams: In Perspective. London: Albion, 1998.
- Heffer, Simon. Vaughan Williams. London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 2000.
- Vaughan Williams, Ursula. R.V.W., A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.