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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Related subjects Performers and composers

A statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams in Dorking.
A statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams in Dorking.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, OM ( October 12, 1872 August 26, 1958) was an influential English composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores. He was also an important collector of English folk music and song.


Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father, the Rev. Arthur Vaughan Williams, was vicar. Following his father's death in 1875 he was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan Wedgwood (1843–1937), the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, the Wedgwood family home in the North Downs. He was also related to the Darwins, Charles Darwin being a great-uncle. Ralph (pronounced "Rayf") was therefore born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, but never took it for granted and worked tirelessly all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals he believed in.

The Darwin-Wedgwood-Galton family tree, showing Vaughan Williams's relationships to Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood
The Darwin-Wedgwood-Galton family tree, showing Vaughan Williams's relationships to Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood

As a student he had studied piano, "which I never could play, and the violin, which was my musical salvation."

After Charterhouse School he attended the Royal College of Music (RCM) under Charles Villiers Stanford. He read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge where his friends and contemporaries included the philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. He then returned to the RCM and studied composition with Hubert Parry, who became a close friend. One of his fellow pupils at the RCM was Leopold Stokowski and during 1896 they both studied organ under Sir Walter Parratt. Stokowski later went on to perform six of Vaughan Williams's symphonies for American audiences, making the very first recording of the Sixth Symphony in 1949 with the New York Philharmonic, and giving the US Premiere of the Ninth Symphony in Carnegie Hall in 1958.

Vaughan Williams's composing developed slowly and it was not until he was 30 that the song "Linden Lea" became his first publication. He mixed composition with conducting, lecturing and editing other music, notably that of Henry Purcell and the English Hymnal. He had further lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897 and later a big step forward in his orchestral style occurred when he studied in Paris with Maurice Ravel.

In 1904, Vaughan Williams discovered English folk songs, which were fast becoming extinct owing to the increase of literacy and printed music in rural areas. He travelled the countryside, transcribing and preserving many himself. Later he incorporated some songs and melodies into his own music, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working lives of ordinary people. His efforts did much to raise appreciation of traditional English folk song and melody. Later in his life he served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which, in recognition of his early and important work in this field, named its Vaughan Williams Memorial Library after him.

In 1905, RVW conducted the first concert of the newly founded Leith Hill Music Festival at Dorking and thereafter held that conductorship until 1953, when he passed the baton to his successor.

In 1909, he composed incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play, a stage production at Cambridge University of Aristophanes' The Wasps, and the next year, he had his first big public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (at The Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral) and A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1), and a greater success with A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) in 1914, conducted by Geoffrey Toye. Being 40, he could have avoided war service. Having had a public school education, he could have tried for a commission. He chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps and had a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer before being commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery. On one occasion he was too ill to stand, but he continued to direct his battery while lying on the ground. Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of loss of hearing which was eventually to cause deafness in old age. In 1918, he was appointed Director of Music, First Army and this helped him adjust back into musical life.

After the war, he adopted for a while a profoundly mystical style in the Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3), which draws on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer in that war; and Flos Campi, a work for viola solo, small orchestra, and wordless chorus. From 1924 a new phase in his music began, characterised by lively cross-rhythms and clashing harmonies. Key works from this period are Toccata marziale, the ballet Old King Cole, the Piano Concerto, the oratorio Sancta Civitas (his favourite of his choral works) and the ballet Job (described as "A Masque for Dancing") which is drawn not from the Bible but from William Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job. He also composed a Te Deum in G for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury. This period in his music culminated in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, first played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935. This symphony contrasts dramatically with the frequent "pastoral" orchestral works he composed; indeed, its almost unrelieved tension, drama, and dissonance has startled listeners since it was premiered. Acknowledging that the fourth symphony was different, the composer said, "I don't know if I like it, but it's what I mean." Two years later, Vaughan Williams made a historic recording of the work with the same orchestra for HMV (His Master's Voice), one of his very rare commercial recordings. During this period, he lectured in America and England, and conducted the Bach Choir. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1935, having previously declined a knighthood.

His music now entered a mature lyrical phase, as in the Five Tudor Portraits; the "morality" The Pilgrim's Progress; the Serenade to Music (a setting of a scene from act five of The Merchant of Venice, for orchestra and sixteen vocal soloists and composed as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood); and the Symphony No. 5 in D, which he conducted at the Proms in 1943. As he was now 70, many people considered it a swan song, but he renewed himself again and entered yet another period of exploratory harmony and instrumentation. His very successful Symphony No. 6 of 1946 received a hundred performances in the first year. It surprised both admirers and critics, many of whom suggested that this symphony (especially its last movement) was a grim vision of the aftermath of an atomic war: typically, Vaughan Williams himself refused to recognise any program behind this work.

Before his death in 1958, he completed three more symphonies. His seventh, Sinfonia Antartica, which was based on his 1948 film score for Scott of the Antarctic, exhibits his renewed interest in instrumentation and sonority. The "little eighth symphony", first performed in 1956, was followed by the much weightier Symphony No. 9 in E minor of 1956-57. This last symphony was initially given a luke-warm reception after its first performance in May 1958, just three months before the composer's death. But this dark and enigmatic work is now considered by many to be a fitting conclusion to his sequence of symphonic works.

He also completed a range of instrumental and choral works, including a tuba concerto, An Oxford Elegy on texts of Matthew Arnold, and the Christmas cantata Hodie. At his death he left an unfinished Cello Concerto, an opera Thomas the Rhymer and music for a Christmas play, The First Nowell, which was completed by his amanuensis Roy Douglas (b. 1907). He also wrote an arrangement of The Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune for the Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth II.

Despite his substantial involvement in church music, and the religious subject-matter of many of his works, he was described by his second wife as "an atheist … [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism." It is noteworthy that in his opera The Pilgrim's Progress he changed the name of the hero from Bunyan's Christian to Pilgrim. He also set Bunyan's hymn Who would true valour see to music using the traditional Sussex melody " Monk's Gate". For many church-goers, his most familiar composition may be the tune Sine Nomine written for the hymn " For All the Saints".

During his, life he also worked as a tutor for Birkbeck College.

In the 1950s, the composer supervised recordings of all but his ninth symphony by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Decca. At the end of the sessions for the mysterious sixth symphony, Vaughan Williams gave a short speech, thanking Boult and the orchestra for their performance, "most heartily," and Decca later included this on the LP. He was to supervise the first recording of the ninth symphony (for Everest Records) with Boult; his death the night before the recording sessions were to begin resulted in Boult announcing to the musicians that their performance would be a memorial to the composer.

He died in 1958 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Vaughan Williams is a central figure in British music because of his long career as teacher, lecturer and friend to so many younger composers and conductors. His writings on music remain thought-provoking, particularly his oft-repeated call for everyone to make their own music, however simple, as long as it is truly their own.

He was married twice. His first wife, Adeline Fisher (daughter of the historian Herbert William Fisher), died in 1951 after many years of suffering from crippling arthritis. In 1953 he married the poet Ursula Wood (1911- 2007), whom he had known since the late 1930s and with whom he collaborated on a number of vocal works. Ursula later wrote Vaughan Williams's biography RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, which remains the standard work on his life.

Vaughan Williams appears as a character in Robert Holdstock's novel Lavondyss.


Vaughan Williams's music has often been said to be characteristically English, of the same genre as the works of Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, William Walton, and others.

If that Englishness in music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be: ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless. Ackroyd quotes Fuller Maitland, who noted that in Vaughan Williams's style "one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new."

There is in Vaughan Williams often a tangible flavour of Ravel (Vaughan Williams's mentor over a three-month period spent in Paris in 1908), though not imitation. Ravel described Vaughan Williams as "the only one of my pupils who does not write my music."

Vaughan Williams's music expresses a deep regard for and fascination with folk tunes, the variations upon which can convey the listener from the down-to-earth (which he always tried to remain in his daily life) to the ethereal. Simultaneously the music shows patriotism toward England in the subtlest form, engendered by a feeling for ancient landscapes and a person's small yet not entirely insignificant place within them.


See also Category:Compositions by Ralph Vaughan Williams.


  • Hugh the Drover or Love in the Stocks (1910-20)
  • Sir John in Love (1924-28), from which comes an arrangement by Ralph Greaves of Fantasia on Greensleeves
  • The Poisoned Kiss (1927-29; revisions 1936-37 and 1956-57)
  • Riders to the Sea (1925-32), from the play by John Millington Synge
  • The Pilgrim's Progress (1909-51), based on John Bunyan's allegory


  • Old King Cole (1923)
  • Job, a masque for dancing (1930)


  • Symphonies
    • A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1), a choral symphony on texts by Whitman (1903-1909)
    • A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (1913)
    • A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) (1921)
    • Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1931-34)
    • Symphony No. 5 in D (1938-43)
    • Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1946-47)
    • Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No. 7) (1949-52) (partly based on his music for the film Scott of the Antarctic)
    • Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-55)
    • Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-57)
  • In the Fen Country, for orchestra (1904)
  • Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1906, rev. 1914)
  • The Wasps, an Aristophanic suite (1909)
  • Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1913 and 1919)
  • Fantasia on "Greensleeves" (1934)
  • Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939)
  • Concerto Grosso, for three parts of strings requiring different levels of technical skill (1950)


  • Piano
    • Piano Concerto in C (1926-31)
    • Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (c. 1946; a reworking of Piano Concerto in C)
  • Violin
    • The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra (1914)
    • Concerto Accademico for violin and orchestra (1924-25)
  • Viola
    • Flos Campi for viola, wordless chorus and small orchestra (1925)
    • Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra (1936-38)
  • Oboe Concerto in A minor, for oboe and strings (1944)
  • Fantasia (quasi variazione) on the Old 104th Psalm Tune for piano, chorus, and orchestra (1949)
  • Romance in D flat for harmonica and orchestra (1951) (written for Larry Adler)
  • Tuba Concerto in F minor (1954)


  • Toward the Unknown Region, song for chorus and orchestra, setting of Walt Whitman (1906)
  • Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus and orchestra, settings of George Herbert (1911)
  • Fantasia on Christmas Carols for baritone, chorus, and orchestra (1912; arranged also for reduced orchestra of organ, strings, percussion)
  • Mass in G Minor for unaccompanied choir (1922)
  • Sancta Civitas (The Holy City) oratorio, text mainly from the Book of Revelation (1923-25)
  • Te Deum in G (1928)
  • Benedicite for soprano, chorus, and orchestra (1929)
  • In Windsor Forest, adapted from the opera Sir John in Love (1929)
  • Three Choral Hymns (1929)
  • Magnificat for contralto, women's chorus, and orchestra (1932)
  • Five Tudor Portraits for contralto, baritone, chorus, and orchestra (1935)
  • Dona nobis pacem, text by Walt Whitman and other sources (1936)
  • Festival Te Deum for chorus and orchestra or organ (1937)
  • Serenade to Music for sixteen solo voices and orchestra, a setting of Shakespeare (1938)
  • A Song for Thanksgiving (originally Thanksgiving for Victory) for narrator, soprano solo, children's chorus, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1944)
  • An Oxford Elegy for narrator, mixed chorus and small orchestra (1949)
  • Three Shakespeare Songs for SATB unaccompanied composed for The British Federation of Music Festivals National Competitive Festival (1951)
  • Hodie, a Christmas oratorio (1954)
  • Folk songs of the Four Seasons for unaccompanied SSA chorus.
  • Epithalamion for baritone solo, chorus, flute, piano, and strings (1957)
  • Numerous hymns, some of which were first published in the English Hymnal of 1906, of which Vaughan Williams was the musical editor, collaborating with Percy Dearmer.


  • "Linden Lea", song (1901)
  • The House of Life (1904)
  • Songs of Travel (1904)
  • "The Sky Above The Roof" (1908)
  • On Wenlock Edge, song cycle for tenor, piano and string quartet (1909)
  • Along the Field, for tenor and violin
  • Three Poems by Walt Whitman for baritone and piano (1920)
  • Four Poems by Fredegond Shove: for baritone and piano (1922)
  • Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola and Strings
  • Merciless Beauty for tenor, two violins, and cello
  • Four Last Songs to poems of Ursula Vaughan Williams
  • Ten Blake songs, song cycle for high voice and oboe (1957)

Chamber and Instrumental

  • String Quintet in C minor for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano (1903)
  • String Quartet No. 1 in G minor (1908)
  • Phantasy Quintet for 2 violins, 2 violas and cello (1912)
  • Six Studies in English Folk-Song, for violoncello and piano (1926)
  • Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes, for organ (1956)
  • String Quartet No. 2 in A minor ("For Jean, on her birthday," 1942-44)
  • Romance for Viola and Piano (undated)


  • Three Preludes on Welsh Hymntunes (Bryn Calfaria, Rhosymedre, Hyfrydol) (1920)
  • A Wedding Tune for Ann (1943)
  • Two Organ Preludes (The White Rock, St. David's Day) (1956)
  • The Old Hundredth Psalm-Tune (?)

Film, radio, and TV scores

  • Forty-Ninth Parallel, 1940, his first, talked into it by Muir Mathieson to assuage his guilt at being able to do nothing for the war-effort
  • Coastal Command, 1942
  • BBC adaptation of The Pilgrim's Progress, 1942
  • The People's Land, 1943
  • The Story of a Flemish Farm, 1943
  • Stricken Peninsula, 1945
  • The Loves of Joanna Godden, 1946
  • Scott of the Antarctic, 1948, partially reused for his Symphony No. 7 Sinfonia Antartica


  • English Folk Song Suite for military band (1923)
  • Toccata Marziale for military band (1924)
  • Flourish for Wind Band (1939)
  • Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus, arr.
  • Sea Songs
  • Overture: Henry V

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