This is a portion of a piece I wrote for Springhouse magazine in 2008 for the fiftieth anniversary of RVW's death.
For many years, I’ve loved the music of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). He was born 135 years ago last year, and died fifty years ago this coming summer. As editor of the 1906 English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams (RVW) adapted folk tunes or wrote his own music for hymns like “For All the Saints,” “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” “At the Name of Jesus,” “Hail Thee, Festival Day,” “Come Down, O Love Divine,” and others that are found in many hymnals today, so I first heard his music at my childhood church. Later, when I was a master’s degree student, I attended a choral recital with my musician friend Jim Hicks. One of the pieces was RVW’s setting of Burns’ poem “Ca the Yowes.” The song was one of those hair-standing-on-the-neck moments best experienced from a live performance, although a recent CD version (Over Hill, Over Dale on the Hyperion label) comes close.
Over the next several years I collected LPs of RVW’s music. At first misinterpreting his double last name, I looked in vain under “Williams” at the mall record shop, but then I found (and played till it crackled) The Pastoral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, a champion of his music. Another time, I spotted RVW’s opera Sir John in Love at an out of town record store. My wife worried about the cost, so to please her, I didn’t buy the set, and then I kicked myself all the way home. A few months later, though, we returned to that particular mall, two hours away, and the set was still for sale! “Buy it, for heaven’s sake,” my wife said. I also shopped used record stores. During the early 1980s I purchased an old LP, an RVW “nativity play” called The First Nowell (1958). The LP was a classical music club recording, out of print, and no other recording existed, so I took gentle care of the record for over twenty years until, finally, a new recording on CD appeared a year ago on the Chandos label.
Today I play my old LPs less and less, but RVW’s music still fills my CD and Download collections, along with other favorite composers. If pressed, I’d had to say my favorite musical pieces of all, by anyone, are his third (Pastoral) and fifth symphonies.
Sometimes it’s hard to say why certain music “speaks” to you very deeply. If I’m feeling verklempt and need a good cry, all I have to do is put on the Tallis Fantasia, the Dives and Lazarus variants, the Norfolk Rhapsody, the last movement of the Sea Symphony, beginning at the section “Bathe me, O God, in thee,” or, as I say, the third and fifth symphonies. Such gorgeous music! Musicologists refer to RVW’s use of modal harmonies and the pentatonic scale. I’m untrained in musicology, so if we were listening to CDs together, I’d point out favorite themes and harmonies in his music—a “Vaughan Williamsy” sound, as one author puts it—like a tritonic chord that I hear in the first movement of the fifth, the last movement of the Pastoral, and also in Sancta Civitas, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and others.
Music provides all kinds of private associations which are not at all important “in the big scheme” but are deeply important and personal to the listener. Think of music that instantly takes you back to a certain time or place. I purchased several Mendelssohn LPs in Maryland, very early in my marriage, and now Mendelssohn’s music tends to transport me to that area and that time; the Scottish Symphony might as well be the Interstate 70 through the Hills West of Baltimore Symphony. Mozart, which I also play almost daily, reminds me of several locations. Vaughan Williams might be amused to know that his music connects me to my roots in Southern Illinois—and that it inspires me when I’m writing religious curriculum. As I wrote earlier, I first heard his music as hymn tunes in my local church. Eventually I embarked on a religious career, and church music naturally continued to be nourishing. Because the English folk tradition not only influenced his hymnal but also his lifelong work, it’s easy for me to feel happy and uplifted by nearly all his music, religious or not
Vaughan Williams was an atheist in his youth and a “cheerful agnostic” in his adulthood. He seemed to have liked the idea of being a “Christian agnostic.” In the recent film O Thou Transcendent, Tony Palmer tries to balance the familiar image of RVW—a folksy, avuncular papa bear—with the image of a suffering man whose doubts about life’s meaning are reflected in pieces like the fourth symphony (a consistently angry piece), the sixth symphony (a haunting work consisting of three movements full of conflict and a final, eerie, pianissimo movement that people have associated with postwar desolation), as well as the ambivalent mood of his ninth symphony, completed not long before his death. One of Palmer’s interviewees says that the conclusion of the sixth—with a major chord and a minor chord moving back and forth until the symphony ends with E minor—sounds like an “amen” that never resolves into affirmation. RVW had two notable sources of suffering in his life, his experiences in World War I, and the fact that his wife Adeline was a longtime invalid. Perhaps he also suffered from being fatherless at an early age and also from having no children. We shouldn’t assume an equation between an artist’s work and autobiography (and the film sometimes comes too close to that kind of equation), but pieces like these symphonies (and the Pastoral Symphony, which is actually inspired by the Western Front rather than English countryside) surely have roots in the composer’s experiences. And yet, so do his many “happier” pieces. His very last piece, after all, was The First Nowell, the lovely Christmas piece that I’ve cherished for twenty-five years.
In the June 2006 issue of Journal of the RVW Society, Eric Seddon argues, “Just as it does no good to quibble about whether Vaughan Williams was really a secret Christian in disguise, so it is useless to claim that his works are not profoundly Christian; that is, that they are derived from a Christian world-view, informed by Christian theology, and resonant with the Christian message.. What other composer of his day produced such monumental meditations on the nativity, the apocalypse, the relationship of the soul to God, and the Eucharist?” (p. 23). Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Vaughan Williams’ works were profoundly influenced by England, but “Englishness” includes deeply Christian traditions. RVW’s agnosticism didn’t preclude an appreciation for the mysteries beyond human existence, and in his words, he wanted in his music “to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty” (Journal of the RVW Society, 10/06, p. 16). He didn’t profess to know what those ultimate realities are, and he seemed prepared to accept that there are none.
And yet his “stretching”—and his willingness to be of service to people whose beliefs he couldn’t embrace—makes his works wonderful listening for a Christian like me. He worked his whole life on music associated with Bunyan’s story The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the conclusion of the opera, at the point where the character Pilgrim (“Christian” in the novel) succumbs, the trumpets and songs of Heaven appear within the silence of death, envelopes the listener in glory, and disappear again. We find a similar effect in a more disturbing piece, Sancta Civitas, based on apocalyptic texts: when the vision of divinity appears, it is a mysterium tremendum. These are just two pieces; as Seddon writes, RVW composed so much beautiful church music. The CD Shepherd of the Delectable Mountains (Hyperion, 1993), containing A Song of Thanksgiving and The 100th Psalm, is another personal favorite.
John Francis writes (Journal of the RVW Society, 6/07), “If anyone loved his neighbor, throughout his life, I think it was Vaughan Williams.” In that article, Francis quotes a Musical Times writer, “[RVW] was instantly ready to support from his own purse the many appeals…that came to him. Indeed it was sometimes difficult to persuade him that some causes were more deserving than others. His instinct was to help first and judge later, a trait of character occasionally too optimistic, but always endearing.” Francis notes that Vaughan Williams “embodied ‘Christian’ (actually humanitarian) values to such an extent that Christians are perhaps just disappointed that he was not a paid up member” (p. 19). Lincoln seems a similar case: a deeply spiritual not-quite-believer whose human sympathies and integrity capture the imagination.
Over the years I’ve been very inspired by RVW’s eagerness to encourage people and to serve. He enlisted in World War I and served near the front, when he might have used his age (42) and class to avoid the war, in which he lost close friends like the composer George Butterworth. During World War II he helped with refugee efforts and other kinds of assistance, like scrap collection and even, according to Palmer’s documentary, cleaning public lavatories. We’ve all known people in our various professions who should’ve taken the time to be encouraging, but who did not. It’s a very human tendency to disdain interests and pathways that aren’t yours, or to be snobbish toward others who don’t meet your standards. RVW supported the work of other composers, like Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, whose styles were different from his own. Commenting on his generous attitude toward his students, RVW said he’d rather encourage a fool than discourage a genius. Not to say that my students are fools—quite the contrary—but I agree with RVW’s philosophy and live by those words in my teaching.
Simon Heffer writes that “the sheer quality and genius of his work is denied only curmudgeons, and is in huge demand by radio audiences, concert halls and the CD-buying publish … what Vaughan Williams had to say is timeless in its appeal. It is …an appeal which, even though designed by an Englishman for the English, has now safely and popularly travelled around the world” (Journal of the RVW Society, 2/08, p. 14). This little essay is my thank you to RVW, and also my own contribution in keeping that music traveling.