On this day 50 years ago the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams died, ending a creative career that had lasted more than 60 years, and is to my mind the single greatest body of work by any English composer.
I admire Britten, Elgar and Holst, Purcell, Tallis and Byrd, but Vaughan Williams seems to me more emblematic of the sound of his country’s native music, and I can’t think of a piece of his I don’t like.
I first became aware of him as more than the composer of For All the Saints when I had to sing in a college performance of Dona Nobis Pacem, his cantata based on the Civil War poems of Walt Whitman. I was stunned by how masterful and beautiful this piece was, and parts of it have remained in my memory since that time, particularly Reconciliation, with its lovely setting of Whitman’s lines: Word over all/Beautiful as the sky.
I also love Vaughan Williams’ chamber music, the Phantasy Quintet especially, and many of his songs; one of my very favorite of these is Hands, Eyes, Heart, written at the very end of the composer’s life, when he was in his early 80s. It’s an exquisite song, richly harmonized and set to a moving text by his second wife, Ursula.
It’s the symphonies that are getting more attention these days, and they are marvelous works. A recent frequent visitor to my ears has been the Third Symphony, the Pastoral, with its reminiscences of World War I in the trumpet calls and a kind of strong modal melody unique to this composer. Where others have used this same kind of material, it gets run through a fancier scrim, but Vaughan Williams prefers to paint it straight and proud, and it’s music that grows on you.
I’ve also heard a ravishing section or two from his opera The Poisoned Kiss, and I’m fond of the oboe and tuba concerti, as well as Flos Campi and of course, the Tallis fantasia and The Lark Ascending.
A film about Vaughan Williams’ life and art was released earlier this year, I think, and I’ve been meaning to check it out. The central focus of the film apparently is the effect on his art that the composer gained from his service in World War I, which included stretcher-bearing and ambulance driving; that might not seem like a big deal, but Vaughan Williams was in his early 40s when the war began and could easily have turned the other way and let the younger generation do its bit.
I think that says good things about the kind of person he was, and it’s my hope that Vaughan Williams will one day be recognized as the finest of his country’s composers, one whose art had a great deal to say to his audiences and to ours,
Here is Janine Jansen playing The Lark Ascending (it’s in two parts):