Ralph Vaughan Williams

British Composer (Down Ampney, 1872 – London, 1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams was a multifaceted British composer; he was simultaneously a symphonist, collector of folk songs, film score composer, conductor and professor. His work, lauded in England, has been largely shunned in France, but is gradually regaining popularity on the continent.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born into a middle class family, in the county of Gloucestershire, nephew of Charles Darwin. He first experienced music at the age of six through the piano and violin. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London, where he formed a friendship with fellow pupil Gustav Holst. The two young men critiqued each other’s compositions and, through this practice, refined their style. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ style was also influenced by others; firstly, through meeting and studying with Max Bruch in Berlin (1897), then through taking intensive lessons from Maurice Ravel in Paris (1908). During those years he also travelled throughout the United Kingdom in order to take in the songs that were part of the country’s oral tradition, in 1906 he produced the English Hymnal. Ralph Vaughan Williams also incorporated these melodies into his own compositions. 

In 1910, Ralph Vaughan Williams gave performances of two of his great works - Tallis Fantasia and Symphony n°1, known as the Sea Symphony – at Gloucester Cathedral. These pieces made him known to the public; he experienced almost immediate success. In 1914 he debuted his 2nd Symphony – A London Symphony, which made him even more famous and marked him out as a great talent. For many his music represents the best of the England, its spirit, its character, its towns, villages and countryside. 

Though he was forty-one years old at the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered as a stretcher-bearer. The prolonged exposure to artillery fire caused him to experience hearing loss. 

On returning from war, his style shifted becoming at times mystical (as in Symphony No. 3) or dissonant (Toccata marziale, Piano Concerto). This shift in style is most marked in Symphony No. 4 (1935), it marked a clear departure from the compositions that had come before. It was dissonant and polyrhythmic creating a pervading dramatic tension. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ remained active even in the twilight of his career. He juggled composing film scores and operas, with conducting, teaching the younger generation of composers, and even giving lessons in the United States. He died on the 26th of August 1958 in London. He refused all honours during his lifetime but was posthumously decorated with the Order of Merit

Landmark Dates in the Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams

1895 – Friendship with Gustav Holst

1897 – Took lessons with Max Bruch

1907 – Began intensive lessons with Maurice Ravel

Three Key Works by Ralph Vaughan Williams 

1910Tallis Fantasia

1910Sea Symphony (Symphony no. 1

1914A London Symphony (Symphony no. 2