Ralph Vaughan Williams

Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

The leading composer of the generation that "revived" British classical music in the early 20th Century. He was inspired by English folk song and Elizabethan and 17th-century English music.

Vital Statistics
October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
August 26, 1958, in London
20th Century
Performed As:
Choral conductor, organist, violinist and violist
During Lifetime:
Queen Victoria dies in January 1901. Britain endures two World Wars and India and Pakistan become independent countries.
Biographical Outline
  • Surviving a loss: His clergyman father dies when Vaughan Williams is only three, and his family moves to his grandfather's house in Surrey, where he studies piano and violin.
  • Education, 1890-1901: He attends the Royal College of Music, 1890-92, before entering Trinity College, Cambridge, and studying with Charles Wood. He does further studies in composition in London with Charles Villiers Stanford and advanced studies in Berlin with Max Bruch (1897). He earns a doctorate from Cambridge in 1901.
  • Collecting and more study, 1901-08: Vaughan Williams becomes an active collector of English folk music, and rediscovers the now-famous Greensleeves. In all, he notates and records more than 800 folk tunes, while also working as a writer, lecturer, and music editor. He goes on to study orchestration and modern coloristic harmony in Paris with Ravel, 1908.
  • Breaking into the scene: He becomes principal conductor of the Leith Hill Music Festival in 1905, a position he holds until 1953. His Bach performances there become national events. He completes his Walt Whitman-inspired A Sea Symphony, in 1909 and then his first major masterpiece, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in 1910.
  • War service: Vaughan Williams joins the British Army in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, serving in Salonika (Greece) and France as an artillery officer.
  • Academia, 1919-39: He teaches at the Royal College of Music until 1939 and visits the U.S. in 1922.
  • On edge: During the 1930s, Vaughan Williams becomes increasingly interested in dissonant harmonies and harsh textures, along with contrapuntal complexity, as seen in his Piano Concerto (1931) and the Fourth Symphony (1935).
  • Never too late: With the death of his first wife, Vaughan Williams remarries in 1953 at age 80, prior to an extensive lecture tour of American campuses.
  • Last years: He remains inventive and highly productive throughout his life. He begins his Seventh Symphony at age 80, his Ninth at 85.
Fun Facts
  • Off the lists: Although awarded the Order of Merit by King George V in 1935, Vaughan Williams earlier refused a knighthood. He was suspicious of prizes that might carry duties or expectations with them.
  • British humor: Vaughan Williams was a tad formal in manner but always with wit in his pocket. As often as not his humor was self deprecating. After the first rehearsal with the BBC Symphony of his violent Fourth Symphony, he told them, "I'm not sure I like it, but it's what I intended." Ironically, it is the only one of his nine Symphonies that escaped revisions.
  • Family ties: Vaughan Williams' paternal grandmother was the sister of Charles Darwin. As she put it to the young Ralph, "The Bible tells us that God made the world in six days. Great uncle Charles thinks it took rather longer."
  • An Ordinary Gent: The composer was a believer in music's role in daily life and took on many projects we don't associate with great composers. Among these, though he was a strong agnostic, was the editing of The English Hymnal (1906), which includes one of his own tunes, 40 folk tunes, and gets rid of a lot of Victoriana. It is one of the most influential hymnals of the 20th Century and a 1986 revised version is still in use.
  • Trusted Friend: The composer Gustav Holst (of the The Planets fame) was at the Royal College of Music with Vaughan Williams, and shared his interests in folksong and Elizabethan and Jacobean music. Their friendship continued, and they gave each other constructive criticism on new compositions.
  • Compassion in the dark days: During the 1930s Vaughan Williams became very active in aiding European refugees. He joined a committee to provide those who'd escaped the Nazis with housing and general necessities, even putting some up in his own Surrey home.
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Explore the Music
  • Vaughan Williams is commonly associated with the group of English pastoral composers who emerged around the turn of the century. Some of his most famous pieces, like The Lark Ascending (1914, rev. 1921), Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), and the Fantasia on "Greensleeves" (1934) fit this description. But he was a composer of much broader scope than that, though firmly in the Romantic tradition. Vaughan Williams did not close his ears to the world around him.
  • Vaughan Williams composed in many genres, including nine symphonies and six operas. The Fantasia on "Greensleeves" is adapted from his third opera, Sir John in Love (1928) in an arrangement by Ralph Greaves. He also wrote a lot of choral music, of which the Dona Nobis Pacem (1936), which includes settings of Walt Whitman poems, has recently been popular.
  • ...And the kitchen sink: Vaughan Williams liked unusual instruments. Several of his scores call for saxophone (The Ninth Symphony calls for a trio of them. He cautioned the trio at the first rehearsal that they should play romantically, "not like deranged cats.") His Third Symphony includes a wordless soprano part, his Eighth a battery of gongs and bells. He was one of the few major composers to write a Tuba Concerto, a Romance for harmonica, or a suite for four-part recorder ensemble.
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