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Vaughan Williams by Eric Saylor

02 December 2022

Ronald Corp reviews a new Master Musicians handbook to RVW

IF CLASSIC FM listeners are anything to go by, it seems that Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is now the nation’s favourite British composer. In recent years, The Lark Ascending has topped the Classic Hall of Fame 12 times. But the composer’s reputation had taken a dip after his death, and this book by the American scholar Eric Saylor comes at a time when a reassessment of Vaughan Williams’s stature is under way. The book is part of Oxford University’s Master Musicians series, and it throws new light on this occasionally misunderstood composer.

It has always been accepted that Vaughan Williams was a late starter, achieving his first real success with the Sea Symphony, which the composer conducted on his 38th birthday in 1910. The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis had received its première a month earlier, but its musical language had puzzled some of the audience.

It has also been accepted that Vaughan Williams’s music was influenced by the folk songs that he collected (he transcribed more than 800 in the decade from 1903), by his enthusiasm for Tudor music, by his work on hymnody (he was the music editor of The English Hymnal, published in 1906), and his studies with Ravel in Paris. But that isn’t the complete picture. What previous books about Vaughan Williams have not been able to do is to consider in any depth his early compositions.

Over the past 20 years, many of these early pieces have been published and recorded; so it is now possible to review his entire output. His early tutors, Parry and Stanford, were influential, but Vaughan Williams was always diffident about his own music. He found the composer Bruch, with whom he studied in Berlin, more encouraging.

Vaughan Williams married Adeline Fisher when he was 25, and at that time he was making his livelihood from writing articles for music publications, including Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. His first work in print was “Linden Lea”. From that year, 1902, to the end of the following year, he had 21 works published or first performed.

The book is arranged so that the odd-numbered chapters are biographical, and the even ones deal with the music written during the years in question. The chapters on the music begin by assessing the composer’s reputation and influence at each stage of his career, while including analysis of the works under discussion; this is never over-technical, but always perceptive. Saylor is particularly good at explaining the use of the word “Pastoral”, which Vaughan Williams gave as the title of his Symphony No. 3, and is also fair in his comments on his six operas, none of which holds a place in the repertory. Latterly, in his old age, Vaughan Williams’s tonal music was at odds with the music being written by younger composers.

alamyRalph Vaughan Williams by Sir Gerald Kelly (in the National Portrait Gallery)

Saylor has had access to 500 or so letters that are now available online and in print, and, with the passage of time, it is now easier to talk about the composer’s relationships with women, and particularly his affair with the woman who was to become his second wife, Ursula. His friendship with her, encouraged by Adeline, who had long been an invalid, seems to have inspired some of his sunniest compositions: the Serenade to Music and Symphony No. 5. Vaughan Williams married Ursula in 1953, two years after the death of his first wife.

The book includes a calendar, a comprehensive catalogue of works, and a list of names, as well as a bibliography. Saylor makes clear that Vaughan Williams was much more than a great composer: he was a conductor, editor, scholar, teacher, author, administrator, and philanthropist. He was a practitioner and advocate of amateur music-making, and a great supporter of other composers, most notably Holst, whom he also helped financially.

This book is essential reading for anyone who loves Vaughan Williams’s works, and will surely bolster the reputation of this most influential British composer.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.


Vaughan Williams
Eric Saylor
OUP £26.99

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