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Vaughan Williams
Heffer, Simon.
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Publication Information:
Boston : Northeastern University Press, 2001.

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167 pages ; 21 cm
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Originally published: London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000. With new index.
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ML410.V3 H37 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Unlike the fathers of the nineteenth-century English musical renaissance, who slavishly paid homage to the German masters, composers Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and his friend Gustav Holst threw off the shackles of the Teutonic school and drew their inspiration from the neglected tradition of folk-song. The result was the creation of a distinctly English musical voice that evoked the cultural heritage of a nation. In particular, the sheer beauty, vitality, and aesthetic force of Vaughan Williams' works, which include The Lark Ascending, Greensleeves, the Tallis Fantasia, and nine symphonies, connected listeners to a timeless past and gave them a common national spirit, especially during turbulent, war-torn times. Here, Simon Heffer charts the course of Williams' remarkable life and career. Heffer traces Williams' privileged upbringing, his years of painstaking studies with Hubert Parry, Max Bruch, and Maurice Ravel, his promotion of folk-song and editorship of the English Hymnal, his close association with Holst and George Butterworth, and his emergence as the leader of English musical life. Williams was a genius of musical invention who is still beloved and admired in Britain and around the world.

Author Notes

Simon Heffer is a political columnist for the Daily Mail. He lives in Chelmsford, England

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

It is to be questioned whether a new study of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is called for, when a couple of good biographies are already available, including one by his widow, Ursula, and Michael Kennedy's excellent book on the music. But journalist and author Heffer (Nor Shall My Sword: The Reinvention of England), who seems to have no special musical training (which his subject would probably have wryly appreciated) has done a thoroughly workmanlike job of evoking the composer's peculiarly English ethos. VW (as he is known in England) set out consciously to be an English composer rather than a member of any international group or movement, and though there were critics who derided what they saw as his parochiality, his music, Heffer observes, has survived with remarkable strength, some of it now even seen as prophetic. Heffer is particularly insightful about VW's last symphonies, the unaccountably neglected piano concerto and his long and constantly thwarted ambition to compose operas that would hold their place in the repertory. But Heffer has nothing much to add, in this slim volume, to what is already known of the life. (If only some scholar could unearth a more complete account of VW's period of study with Ravel in Paris surely one of the unlikeliest matchings of two great composers ever made.) What Heffer has done very convincingly is to set forth eloquently what makes VW's music not only internationally admired, but a source of particular pride and solace to his countrymen. Heffer concludes with an all-too-brief critical discography. (Apr. 6) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Along with his friend Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams led a 20th-century musical renaissance in England by rejecting continental influences in favor of native folksongs. Critics have often dismissed him as a conservative, "pastoral" composer, but in this compelling portrait by British political columnist Heffer, Vaughan Williams emerges as far more complex a kind of dogged genius, or "the right man in the right place at the right time," in his own words. A late bloomer, Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel in order to overcome a certain orchestral stodginess, and, in fact, his technique didn't find secure ground until he was well into his forties. By no means satisfied merely to repeat his past successes, Vaughan Williams challenged himself and his audiences with occasionally discomfiting music. Now over 40 years since his death, his nine symphonies and numerous choral works have found a cherished place in the hearts of his countrymen, and his works have been often performed and recorded by American orchestras as well. Heffer divides his slender text into eight chronological chapters, and his writing, though not at all technical, will engage both novice and cognoscenti. The lack of a complete works list makes the book less than an ideal reference source, and the selective discography is inadequate. Still, it is an excellent and approachable introduction to the admirable life and often remarkable works of this important 20th-century composer. Larry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

A political columnist for the Daily Mail, Heffer has written books on Carlyle, Edward VII, and Enoch Powell. Now comes this life of one of the greatest English composers of the 20th century, with a modest amount of nontechnical commentary on the musical works. Alas! Heffer's obsession with the "Englishness" of Vaughan Williams's music is likely to turn off non-English readers (including card-carrying Scots) before they have gotten past the second chapter. At least 50 years out of date, Heffer's approach is explicitly rejected by modern scholars. VW's stature must now, as the New Grove insists, be assessed without the dubious benefit of the baggage of "nationalism in music," in which the composer himself believed but which interferes with a clear appreciation of the complexities and the evolutionary development of his music. Heffer's prose is very stodgy when he pushes his "English" thesis; it improves in the later chapters. The book will serve those who are willing to take everything Heffer says on trust (no footnotes) and who can make do with a minimal bibliography and useless "discography." Students and scholars will wish to consult New Grove or New Grove 2, or Michael Kennedy, Ursula Vaughan Williams, James Day, or Frank Howes. W. Metcalfe emeritus, University of Vermont



Chapter One The Magic Casements Vaughan Williams was born, as he put it in his old age, `with a very small silver spoon in my mouth'. His father's family, which had come out of Carmarthenshire in the late eighteenth century, had made a reputation in the law. His mother was a Miss Wedgwood, niece of Charles Darwin. The family into which Ralph was born, on 12 October 1872, was of the highest professional class, one rank below the landed gentry. On both sides intellectualism and the peculiarly English brand of conservative radicalism that in those days so often accompanied it were strong forces. Arthur Vaughan Williams, Ralph's father, had chosen the church rather than the law. At his son's birth he was the vicar of Down Ampney, in Gloucestershire near the border with Wiltshire.     Music was one of the few intellectual disciplines into which one or other of Ralph's forebears had as yet made no serious incursion. The nineteenth century had, however, seen and heard new stirrings of the nation's musical consciousness. The pianoforte was the staple of domestic entertainment in many households. For over half a century choral societies had been springing up in provincial towns and cities, their members devoted to performing the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn. Orchestral concerts had slowly come into fashion, their programmes similarly paying homage to the German masters. What passed for the English composer at the time of Vaughan Williams's birth were men who, with the honourable exception of Arthur Sullivan, slavishly devoted themselves to the Teutonic school, with Brahms and Wagner especially in vogue. There was, as yet, no English voice.     The increasingly musical climate of the mid to late Victorian period was the perfect stimulus for young Ralph. Music excited him from his earliest exposure to it in the family's drawing-room. He did not just want to sing it and play it: he wanted to write it. His first, rudimentary exercises in composition came in early childhood, though he showed none of the precocious genius of a Mozart or, even, of his successor Benjamin Britten. Learning how to write music would not come wholly instinctively. It would be the result of years of painstaking study, but would in time reveal a genius of musical invention. Vaughan Williams's musical apprenticeship would help create an artist who could connect English music with a cultural heritage that owed nothing to Germany, thereby relating it more easily to many of the English people. He would, by the end of his life, have established the English voice.     When Ralph was two and a half his father died suddenly, aged just forty. His mother took him and her other two children back to Leith Hill Place, the Wedgwood home, in perhaps the most beautiful part of the Surrey hills between Guildford and Dorking. His was a serene, comfortable childhood, though his creative motivation had no complacency about it. The Wedgwoods had, like many such households of the time, a strong musical element in the home. His aunt Sophy Wedgwood taught Ralph the piano. It was for this instrument that he wrote his first composition, at the age of six: a four-bar piece called The Robin's Nest . She also worked with him through a Georgian textbook called A Child's Introduction to Thorough Bass . At the age of seven he began violin lessons, his mother having by chance seen an advertisement by a teacher while walking with her son through Eastbourne. The following year he tackled Stainer's Harmony , and took an Edinburgh University correspondence course. Music was barely taught in schools then, and all this extra-curricular activity meant that by the time Ralph went to his preparatory school, at Rottingdean in the autumn of 1883, he was more than equal to whatever musical instruction could be thrown at him. The climax of his career at that school, he felt, was playing Raft's Cavatina in a school concert. It was also at Rottingdean that an enlightened piano teacher introduced him properly to Bach (young Ralph had hitherto thought no one a match for Handel), thereby increasing his interest in the piano and beginning a lifelong love affair with the man who would become his favourite composer.     When he arrived at Charterhouse in January 1887, at the age of fourteen, he was used to arranging chamber music for whatever instrumental forces happened to be available. Charterhouse encouraged musical expression, which made it progressive among the public schools of its time. The school organist, H. G. Robinson, let Ralph practise on the chapel organ. There was a school orchestra in which he played the violin and then the viola, which would become a favourite instrument. The Charterhouse music-makers were sufficiently ambitious that Ralph and a colleague asked the formidable headmaster, Haig Brown, whether they could give a concert in the school hall. To their surprise he assented, and the occasion was attended by masters as well as boys. Vaughan Williams recalled that, afterwards, a mathematics master came up to him and said: 'You must go on.' It was, the composer also noted, 'one of the few words of encouragement I have ever received'. At this stage he was, however, so convinced of his own vocation to write music that he needed no encouragement.     By the time he left Charterhouse in 1890 Vaughan Williams had become an atheist. That state of mind continued throughout his student days, though he later moderated his view to agnosticism. As his second wife put it: 'He was far too deeply absorbed by music to feel any need of religious observance.' He never became a professing Christian. He was all too susceptible, however, to the aesthetic beauty of Anglican ritual, of the Prayer Book, the King James Bible and church music. His recognition of its quality was part of his instinctive sympathy with the culture of England, its apparently inevitable power over him driving him in his own particular direction when he reached maturity as a composer. Despite his atheism he was a deeply humane figure, bred with a strong sense of noblesse oblige , and also harbouring a deep sentimentality towards his environment, landscape and fellow countrymen. All these qualities would manifest themselves in his music.     In the autumn of 1890 he took the first crucial step in his career, and enrolled at the Royal College of Music. The College had been founded only seven years earlier by Sir George Grove, who was still director. Largely as a result of its existence, musical life in England was in a new and exciting phase, and pioneers were still needed. Vaughan Williams's immediate ambition had been to become an orchestral player, probably of the viola; but this was unthinkable to his family, who regarded such an occupation as infra dignitatem . They would only countenance his becoming an organist, which at least smacked of respectability. By the time he went to the RCM he had not only become used to practising on the Charterhouse organ, but would also out of term make a daily pilgrimage from Leith Hill to the church at nearby Coldharbour, and practise there. Once at the RCM, though, his ambitions developed: he wanted to study composition, and to do so under Parry. He achieved his ambition, thereby coming under one of the most important influences he would know.     Parry can properly be seen, now, as one of the most vital and radical forces of the English musical renaissance. The son and heir of a Gloucestershire squire and aesthete, he had much in common socially and intellectually with his new pupil. Above all, both brought to their vocation a capacity to think originally about it. Parry had become celebrated first as a writer nearly a decade earlier, with his Studies of Great Composers . His reputation as a composer had been properly established in 1887 by his great choral work Blest Pair of Sirens , a setting of Milton, which Vaughan Williams maintained (Elgar, Byrd and Purcell notwithstanding) was his favourite piece of choral music written by an Englishman. Although easily labelled as a Germanicist, and with a heavy and freely acknowledged debt to Brahms, Parry none the less led the movement to free English music of its German subservience. Before he and his pupil had met, Parry's music had had its effect on Vaughan Williams, or at least on his instincts. In his Musical Autobiography Vaughan Williams wrote: 'I remember, even as a boy, my brother saying to me that there was something, to his mind, peculiarly English about his music.' Long before Vaughan Williams developed the notion that music could be national, and that England, too, had a 'national music', he instinctively knew there were idioms of atavistic English music, whether of Tudor polyphony or of folk-song, that bore a cultural fingerprint peculiar to his homeland. He heard this in Parry too, and would devote much of the first phase of his maturity as a composer to finding, and defining, it.     Before being allowed into Parry's orbit, the potential pupil had to reach an advanced standard in harmony, which Vaughan Williams duly did. Once qualified to study with Parry, he found a well of humanity and conviction remarkably similar to his own. Parry recognised in his pupil a gifted amateur like himself who also had the drive to pursue music to the highest professional standard. He looked for talent and 'character' in compositions that Vaughan Williams himself later came to recognise as deeply sub-standard. He embarked on educating his pupil more widely about music, a harder task in an era before gramophone records and broadcasting, playing through works on the piano and lending him scores which -- if orchestral -- he and a fellow pupil would play through as a duet on the piano, in order to discover the works from the inside.     Parry tried to educate his pupil about Beethoven, whose idiom repelled him -- and continued to do so -- though Vaughan Williams admitted that Parry had made him see Beethoven's greatness none the less. Above all, Parry made him realise he stood in a tradition of English composition that had begun with William Byrd, however rickety it might have become since the death of Purcell two hundred years earlier. He once told his pupil to 'write choral music as befits an Englishman and a democrat'. It was advice Vaughan Williams would heed, though when he left the RCM for Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1892, the most profound influence upon him, he felt, was Wagner.     His experience with Wagner exemplified the romantic side of his character, and also the way in which inspiration came to him, and how his art would consist in expressing deep-seated cultural instincts within him. Between leaving Charterhouse and going to the RCM he had had his first taste of Wagner opera, Die Walküre . On hearing it he experienced `that strange certainty that I had heard it all before. There was a feeling of recognition as of meeting an old friend which comes to us all in the face of all artistic experiences. I had the same experience when I first heard an English folk-song, when I first saw Michael Angelo's Day and Night , when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge, or had my first sight of New York City -- the intimation that I had been there already.' As well as this almost supernatural element to his appreciation of art, Vaughan Williams was drawn to music by its mystical function -- which it is easy to label as a substitute for religion -- and, perhaps for the same reason, to its uses as a vehicle for prophecy, or at least for making quasi-prophetic utterances. This feature of his art would come through most strongly in his later years; it is in works such as his anti-war cantata Dona Nobis Pacem , or in the stunning Sixth Symphony, when he seems (though he strenuously denied it) to see the world after a nuclear apocalypse. In great old age, having written both those works, he told an audience of schoolchildren: 'Music will enable you to see past facts to the very essence of things in a way which science cannot do. The arts are the means by which we can look through the magic casements and see what lies behind.'     He read history at Cambridge, because the programme of lectures did not conflict with the days he wished to return to London to study with Parry. At Cambridge he had lessons with Charles Wood for the degree of Bachelor of Music, and took further instruction on the organ. Cambridge developed his intellectual life, not least through his family connections: the place was dotted with Darwins and Wedgwoods, and he came to know the family of Frederic Maitland, the Master of Downing College, whose father-in-law Herbert Fisher had been at Oxford with Arthur Vaughan Williams. He also befriended George Trevelyan, who in time would become a distinguished historian, and the budding philosopher George Moore. The main characteristics of Vaughan Williams's intellectual life outside music -- his love of the written word, his rather political sense of ideas, his philosophical earnestness -- were well established in these days.     This was the generation before Rupert Brooke, and the fashionable idealism of the Fabians that he came to embody. However, having become part of this circle, Vaughan Williams also joined them in reading the Fabian tracts, and became what he defined as a socialist. He was never, though, ideological, seeming to prefer the pragmatism that united his class in the early twentieth century whether it was professed by a Tory, Socialist or Liberal. Although he would always take a keen interest in national and world affairs, his politics remained those of the typical, bloody-minded English radical. Writing in 1952, he told a fellow composer: 'I think that when I am with conservatives I become socialistic and when I am with socialists I become a true blue Tory.' Later on in his life, when he saw socialism transmuting, or mutating, into Stalin's variant of communism, he rejected the idea and dissociated himself from it. In the same 1952 letter he said that 'ever since I had a vote I have voted either Radical or Labour except once, after the last war when I was so disgusted by what I considered the mean trick of the Labour party in forcing an election. I voted Labour in the last election [1951] though in my heart of hearts I wanted the Tories to get in, but the old spirit of opposition crept up and with all the country shouting for the Tories I determined to be on the other side.' He would not be the only socialist to recant once he actually saw the ideal put into practice, both at home and abroad, and noted how it militated against both freedom and prosperity. Mr Kennedy has perceptively analysed these traits in saying that Vaughan Williams 'had a great sense of the artist's part in the community -- almost a communist (idealist communist) outlook but with a big streak of personal obstinacy ... he didn't like commissions or writing to order.'     Cambridge in the eighteen nineties had a good musical life. Vaughan Williams was an active participant in the university's Musical Club, at which, one Saturday evening, he heard the first public performance of one of his own works, a quartet for men's voices. He took his BMus in 1894, and a second in history the following year; and then he had to consider in detail his likely career. Alan Gray, who had been teaching him the organ at Cambridge, confided in his fellow organ-tutor at the RCM that he could not in all conscience advise Vaughan Williams to make a career as an organist because he was 'so hopelessly unhandy'. He rejoined the RCM in the summer of 1895, and had another of the crucial encounters that was to affect his musical style and outlook: he met Gustav von Hoist, as he was then known, a man who Vaughan Williams later said was 'the greatest influence on my music'.     Von Hoist was two years his new friend's junior. His was a family of professional musicians who had come to Britain from Riga, though they were of Swedish origins. He had already some experience as a freelance orchestral player, but none of the social ease or confidence of Vaughan Williams. Despite Vaughan Williams's own well-formed intellectual life, von Hoist from the start had more original lines of thought, having a particular interest in the culture and mysticism of the Orient. He had a less romantic vision of England, and a pessimism and sense of isolation that caused some to think his music lacked warmth. Much of it did: but the realism, freedom from sentiment and absence of cliché this lent it are partly what has caused his music to endure, and to make it seem so innovative, even now. Adrian Boult, who knew them both well, recognised that Vaughan Williams lacked the gift of scoring that Hoist (he dropped the `von' during the Great War, in response to anti-German feeling at the time) possessed in abundance: learning how to orchestrate would occupy Vaughan Williams greatly until he was in his late thirties, and unquestionably retarded his progress as a composer.     He and Hoist soon began to have 'field days', on which they would spend several hours deconstructing each other's compositions. 'I think he showed all he wrote to me and I nearly all I wrote to him,' Vaughan Williams recalled. 'I say "nearly all" advisedly, because sometimes I could not face the absolute integrity of his vision and I hid some of my worst crimes from him.' This mutual soul-baring, a manifestation of the complete honesty and (to use his own word) integrity of Vaughan Williams's character, made for a close and unshakeable intimacy, and one that would last forty years until Hoist's death. In 1903 Hoist wrote to him from Germany, in response to some worrying that Vaughan Williams was doing about his own abilities, to say that 'you have never lost your invention but it has not developed enough. Your best -- your most original and beautiful style or "atmosphere" is an indescribable sort of feeling as if one was listening to very lovely lyrical poetry. I may be wrong but I think this (what I call to myself the real RVW) is more original than you think.' He added, as a word of warning: `when you are not in this strain, you either write "second class goods" or you have a devil of a bother to write anything at all'.     Holst was instinctively the better and more disciplined musician, and Vaughan Williams learned immensely from him. He repaid him with his own musical influence, but also more practically: Holst and his wife were often short of money, and Vaughan Williams would help them to afford much-needed holidays, and even subsidised concerts in the early years of their careers to ensure that his friend's music -- and his -- were performed. Throughout his life Vaughan Williams's philanthropy would never be simply theoretical, and his generosity -- both material and of his spirit -- remained instinctive and apparently inexhaustible.     In terms of his musical development, the great difference between Vaughan Williams's second spell at the RCM and his first was that the sway of Wagner had been replaced by an addiction to the supposedly redundant modal form of early English and European music. The modes had been the original grammar of music, as invented by the Greeks. They would now, with great unconventionalism, dominate Vaughan Williams's attempts at composition. Unlike the scales that largely replaced them, the modes did not have a key; as the Oxford Companion to Music defines it: All our major keys are, except for pitch, precisely alike; a listener with an excellent ear cannot tell one from another unless he happens to possess the gift of 'absolute pitch'. The difference between one mode and another is not the kind of difference which exists between C major and D major but that which exists between C major and C minor or D major and D minor, i.e. a difference of the arrangement of tones and semitones, and hence, necessarily, of the width of some of the other intervals. It may be called a difference of flavour ... Vaughan Williams had found this form of music in Tudor polyphony, and especially in madrigals of the period. It was also detectable in some of the supposedly unsophisticated English folk-songs of which he was becoming increasingly aware; and the `flavour' appealed to him because it seemed to be peculiarly English. He might have been able to explore the modes, and their potential when applied to contemporary composition, in an original way with a broad-minded teacher like Parry; but Parry had now become director of the RCM, and Vaughan Williams studied instead with Charles Villiers Stanford, a mercurial and plain-spoken Irishman. In his Musical Autobiography , the pupil admitted Stanford was 'a great teacher, but I believe I was unteachable'. The more he thought about the use of modes in composition, the more he realised that he wished to go in that direction, rather than follow more modern compositional practices. While a supremely gifted radical like Parry might have indulged him, the more rigid Stanford was unsympathetic. He had no great liking for his pupil's music, which he considered 'ugly'.     For all his difficulties with Stanford, by the time Vaughan Williams finally left the RCM in 1897 he was a fully paid-up member of the English musical establishment that had, in barely fifteen years, been created around the College; and there he would stay, and eventually become its leader. For all the radicalism of his politics, and for all his subsequent attempts to found a national school of English music, he was destined to be deeply affected by the natural conservatism of the RCM's approach to composition. Above all, he was determined to explode what he called the `cigar theory' of music: that it was a luxury which, like cigars, could not be made at home, but had to be imported.     The eighteen nineties were a time when the generation of composers above Vaughan Williams started, by their deeds rather than their words, to prove the point for him. His teacher, Hubert Parry, was increasingly showing that he was not merely a bespoke manufacturer of high Victorian oratorios. His Lady Radnor Suite of 1894 evokes exuberance as well as gentility, exhibiting none of the stodginess of the German tradition in which it was accepted Parry was steeped, and from which he could not, it was believed, escape. More significantly, his Symphonic Variations of 1897 demonstrate a passion, suavity and coherence that Vaughan Williams would not come close to emulating until the London Symphony more than fifteen years later. That the Variations have stayed in the repertoire, and have enjoyed new popularity and appreciation in our own times by conductors from all over the world is a tribute to the originality and power of Parry's work. Most significant of all -- because it had a technical brilliance, inventive genius and popular success that truly put contemporary English music on the map -- was the arrival, in 1899, of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations .     It would be some years yet before Vaughan Williams's own work could rival the fame or the reach of such music. He had to content himself, for the present, with humbler activities. For all his apparent inability with the instrument -- not to mention his atheism -- he soon found a post as organist at the church of St Barnabas in South Lambeth, then as now one of the poorer districts of London. He had an advantage over other aspiring composers such as Hoist in that he did not need to earn a living, having a healthy but not excessive private income. His work as an organist was for his continuing education, not to keep body and soul together. He used the post as a springboard for other musical activities. As well as training the choir for their duties during services he founded a choral society and an orchestral society -- `both of them pretty bad' -- which made him realise more acutely the practicalities of writing music for performance. His time at St Barnabas was not easy. He told Hoist that his choristers were `louts' and the vicar 'quite mad'. However, it instilled in him a proper understanding of what had to be done if a piece of music intended for performance by amateurs as well as professionals was to have a chance of success; though this, in turn, would lead to the criticism later on in his career that his choral music in particular retained, in the pejorative sense, an amateur tinge, and was unsuited to professional performances in the great concert halls.     Despite his relegation in Vaughan Williams's estimation, Wagner had still not yet been properly put in perspective by the young composer. He made his first big European journey in 1897 not to Italy, as Stanford had advised him so that he could hear the native opera at La Scala and rid himself of the influence of the Teuton, but to Berlin, which was the only city in Europe where one could hear The Ring uncut. The trip was also his honeymoon; on 9 October 1897, three days before his twenty-fifth birthday, he married Adeline Fisher, sister-in-law of Frederic Maitland and daughter of his father's friend Herbert Fisher. The pair had met frequently at Cambridge while Vaughan Williams had been an undergraduate, and had many intellectual, as well as musical, interests in common.     With the exception of a visit to Italy at Christmas 1897, the Vaughan Williamses spent six months in Berlin. Through mutual friends Vaughan Williams managed to arrange to take lessons from Max Bruch, professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik. What he found so valuable in Bruch was the way in which he encouraged his pupil -- `I had never had much encouragement before.' When a teacher himself, Vaughan Williams made a point of urging on his own pupils, for 'I would rather be guilty of encouraging a fool than of discouraging a genius'. He returned to London, and to his post in South Lambeth, and his musical life consisted more of performing and listening than of composing, despite Bruch's influence. Aware that for all his dedication and skill he was not the most natural of composers, and certainly no prodigy, Vaughan Williams was guilty of allowing a lack of professional self-confidence to overwhelm his otherwise considerable talents; but he was, still, waiting for the right spark to come along and ignite his creativity.     A new incumbent at St Barnabas's insisted on the organist taking communion, which Vaughan Williams felt he, as a principled atheist, could not; so he resigned, without any apparent regret, early in 1899. As a result, he had more time for composition, writing in the first instance his Heroic Elegy for orchestra. This was performed at the RCM in March 1901 to some acclaim from, among others, Stanford. Sadly, it was not published. He was also writing criticism for musical journals -- he was at this stage more a scholar and musicologist than anything else -- and had yet, as he neared the age of thirty, to write any music that made a great public impact. He proceeded to the degree of Doctor of Music at Cambridge, and so gloried in his academic title that he refused to exchange it for any other, such as a knighthood, for the rest of his life; he was always from then on 'Dr Vaughan Williams'.     The acquisition of his doctorate led to his writing about music and lecturing upon it with increasing frequency. Composing remained, however, his prime ambition, and at last the pressure to compose helped overcome the obstacles of professional self-confidence that he had imposed upon himself. He summoned up the courage to write to Elgar, still in the first flush of his great fame, to ask whether he could become a pupil for the purposes of learning about orchestration. Mrs Elgar politely replied that her husband was too busy to take on pupils, and suggested Vaughan Williams went to Granville Bantock instead. Bantock was then principal of the music school of the Midland Institute at Birmingham. Vaughan Williams ignored Elgar's suggestion -- something he later admitted he regretted. Instead, he sought to learn from Elgar vicariously, by sitting in the British Museum for hours on end studying the scores of the Enigma Variations and the Dream of Gerontius: from which he claimed he gained much, as he said was apparent from his Sea Symphony of 1910. His problem, and one that he never really shook off -- according to Roy Douglas, a composer who helped him prepare his scores in later life -- was that he could always imagine exactly what sound he wished to create, but could not always easily determine how to have the orchestra make that sound. This was something that Hoist had no difficulty in doing; and, moreover, Hoist scored his music in a way that ensured every instrument told, whereas Vaughan Williams's orchestral writing sometimes led to a thickness of sound that ended up obscuring some of what he had written.     Vaughan Williams's first popular piece, which started to make his name as a composer, was not orchestral but vocal: his setting of the poem ` Linden Lea ', by William Barnes. Michael Kennedy has categorised Linden Lea as 'midway between a folk song and an art song', a description hard to improve upon. It sounds like an English song that has been around for ever; but in writing the music Vaughan Williams revealed once more his instinctive Englishness, mimicking a version of national folk-song before he had embarked upon his heroic task of collecting them. The song caused a minor sensation; it was on a level of sophistication and subtlety well above many of the drawing-room ballads, with their excessive sentimentality and histrionics, that were the staple of the recreational singers to be found in almost every family. Suddenly, Vaughan Williams found he had made a reputation as a writer of songs, and was in demand as such: and he quickly followed up this initial success with the publication of other songs written in the preceding years. One work from his bottom drawer was a setting of poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The House of Life , which included what would become one of his most celebrated songs, Silent Noon . He had been working, too, on a cycle of Robert Louis Stevensson's Songs of Travel , whose alternating qualities of robustness and sensitivity won them lasting popularity. It was through songs such as these that, as he passed the age of thirty, he became properly noticed on the English musical scene. Copyright © 2000 Simon Heffer. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
1 The Magic Casementsp. 4
2 Real Musicp. 22
3 A Search for a Stylep. 46
4 Mature Mysticismp. 59
5 'Ultimately National'p. 72
6 The Importance of Warp. 97
7 To Be a Pilgrimp. 120
8 Finalep. 135
Codap. 147
Bibliographyp. 149
Select Discographyp. 151
Indexp. 153