Personalities | Ralph Vaughan Williams | Modern Era | Classical

English composer

Vaughan Williams studied with Parry, Stanford and, in Berlin, with Bruch, but was slow to find his unique personal voice. This was released by his study of English folksong (which he began collecting in 1903) and of Tudor church music, and by a further period of study with Ravel in 1908. He realized that there were links between folksong and early English church music (both using the modal scales, not the prevalent minor and major) and his work as editor of the English Hymnal confirmed this perception. The first masterpiece to be drawn from it is his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), in which rhapsodic pastoral and radiant mysticism can hardly be separated. This pastoral aspect has been ridiculed by some (one critic said that Vaughan Williams’s music reminded him of a cow looking over a gate), but the most notable example of this style, the Pastoral Symphony, is in large part a poignant elegy prompted by memories of World War I. Although an agnostic, he was deeply affected by English religious mysticism, and some of his finest works were inspired by William Blake (the ballet Job) and by John Bunyan (his long-meditated opera The Pilgrim’s Progress and the closely related Fifth Symphony).

Recommended Recording:
Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5, New Philharmonia Orchestra, LPO, Sir Adrian Boult (EMI/Warner)

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