R.V.W. A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams

by Jennifer Bryce

This biography, originally published six years after the composer’s death, was written by Vaughan Williams’s second wife, Ursula, whom he met in 1938 when his first wife, Adeline, was badly crippled with arthritis. I had, perhaps naively, thought that there might be some revelation of the great composer’s conflict between devotion to Adeline and his passionate feelings for Ursula. No, apart from Ursula’s mention that one day about two years after Adeline’s death, VW asked her to marry him, there is no reference to feelings – it is all very British and very 1950s.

Ursula and Ralph Vaughan Williams

But I did learn how incredibly hard he worked, firstly assiduously collecting British folksongs in the early 1900s. He loved to go on long walks with his very dear friend, composer Gustav Holst. It wasn’t until after World War I that his writing became prolific: symphonies, operas and many different forms of choral and orchestral works. He was 46 by the end of the war, so the bulk of his work was written when he was over the age of 50.

walking in the English countryside

Vaughan Williams also spent a great deal of his time conducting choirs and orchestras all over England and seemed to be much in demand at country music festivals. Although a big heavy man he played tennis. He was often invited to give lectures — all over England and also in the US.

With first wife, Adeline

Vaughan Williams has written extensively about the interpretation and performance of J.S. Bach. He believed that a choir needed to passionately and deeply understand what they were singing about so, for the many English choirs he conducted, the script should be in English. He found the sound of a harpsichord ‘tinny’ and preferred to back it with an organ or piano during recitatives. This was probably before the resurgence of interest in performance on orginal instruments and so he argued that violins and oboes, for example, sounded very different in the 20th century from what they were like in Bach’s time.

This momentum persisted right into his mid-eighties. Ursula describes his death beautifully – as though he just went to sleep: It was all very ordinary, usual and like many other nights had been and we did not guess that before dawn death, not sleep, would claim him.

One of the most superb pieces of music is Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending — for complete contrast listen to his Sinfonia Antartica. I recently heard his Mass in G Minor and realise that there is still a great deal of his music for me to discover.