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Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams


Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the great British composers of the twentieth century. Inspired by English folk song and music of the Renaissance, he was a leading figure in musical nationalism in the early part of the century. For many listeners, his musical personality is defined by two enduringly popular pieces, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending. But the breadth and depth of his achievement as a symphonist and choral composer is considerable. Vaughan Williams was born in a village in the Cotswolds, in the heart of rural England, into a well-off and cultured family related on his mother’s side to the Wedgwoods and the Darwins. Yet he was never the countryman of popular imagination, and lived for most of his life in London and in nearby Surrey. After showing early musical promise and an inclination towards composition, he studied at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London with Hubert Parry. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he continued his composition studies with Charles Wood, then returned to the RCM for further studies with Charles Stanford. Still feeling the need for greater technical polish, he studied privately with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897, taking further tuition in Paris in 1908 with Ravel, who was three years his junior. Meanwhile, he developed friendships with his fellow composers Gustav Holst and George Butterworth. In the early years of the twentieth century, Vaughan Williams became caught up in the folksong movement that motivated many English composers of his generation. He collected many songs himself, published numerous editions and arrangements, and as editor of The English Hymnal (1906) he adapted several songs as hymns. His wife Ursula wrote that when he heard an Essex labourer sing Bushes and Briars in December 1903, ‘he felt it was something he had known all his life’. Vaughan Williams rarely quoted folk tunes in his major compositions but they did shape his melodic invention and inform his distinctive harmonic language. Another important influence was English Renaissance music, whose polyphonic textures he often adopted. During his long musical apprenticeship, he composed some well-known songs, including Linden Lea (1901) and the cycle Songs of Travel (1904), and his first setting of lyrics by the American poet Walt Whitman, Toward the Unknown Region for chorus and orchestra (1904–06). His breakthrough came in the years before the First World War, with the chamber song cycle On Wenlock Edge (1908–09), the choral Sea Symphony (1903–09, again on poems by Whitman), the atmospheric London Symphony (1911–13), and the resonant Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for strings (1910). He wrote a ‘ballad opera’ Hugh the Drover (1910–14), and the much-loved The Lark Ascending (1914), a ‘romance’ for violin and small orchestra. Both had to wait for performance until after the War. Meanwhile, his war service as a stretcher-bearer provided the inspiration for the hauntingly elegiac Pastoral Symphony (1922). After the War, Vaughan Williams settled into a life of teaching at the Royal College, lecturing, writing, conducting and composing. He wrote several significant choral works, including the short oratorios Sancta civitas (1923–25) and Dona nobis pacem (1936). The texts of these reflect his (agnostic) love of the King James Bible. It was the inspiration of the sensuous Flos campi for viola, wordless chorus and small orchestra (1925), and provided the scenario of the ballet Job (1927–30), which Vaughan Williams labelled a ‘masque for dancing’. He also had a strong feeling for English literature: Shakespeare inspired his genial opera Sir John in Love (1924–28), the source of the well-known Fantasia on Greensleeves, and his Serenade to Music for 16 solo voices and orchestra (1938). Vaughan Williams returned to the genre of the symphony with three works which rank among his greatest masterpieces, the Fourth (1931–34), Fifth (1938–43) and Sixth (1944–47). These were interpreted by many listeners as respectively a prophecy of war, a wartime vision of peace, and a post-war meditation on the threat of nuclear destruction. He himself bluntly denied such intentions. From the early 1920s Vaughan Williams had also been working on his operatic masterpiece, the large-scale ‘morality’ based on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. This was finally completed in 1949 and first staged in 1951, to tepid reviews. By this time he had begun to write film music, including a score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic which he later adapted as his Sinfonia antarctica (1949–52). After this he continued to produce large and small works right up to his death, including the cantata Hodie (1953–54), one of his many celebrations of Christmas, the colourful Eighth Symphony in 1953–6 and the visionary Ninth Symphony in 1956–58. During his lifetime Vaughan Williams was revered by many ordinary music-lovers whose lives he had touched not only through his major works but also through his music for amateurs and his hymn tunes. By the time of his death at the age of 85, his influence on British music had waned as attention turned towards the European avant-garde. Only with the passage of time have his finest works been recognised as far from comfortably conservative. Even this shift in opinion has largely been confined to Britain and other English-speaking countries. Public and critical opinion elsewhere has continued to see him as a marginal or nostalgic figure. But his music may yet achieve a firm place in the international repertoire alongside that of other folksong-inspired nationalists such as Bartók and Janáček. Certainly Vaughan Williams himself believed that ‘the greatest artist belongs inevitably to his country as much as the humblest singer in a remote village’.

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