Sunday, 31 August 2008

With Vaughan Williams on Wenlock Edge

Wilderhope Manor on Wenlock Edge: my first introduction to the music of Vaughan Williams

Patrick Comerford

This month (August) marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who died on 26 August 1958.

Vaughan Williams wrote symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, arranged a number of hymns, adapting them to popular melodies, and collected English folk music, folk dance and songs. And it a great pleasure to find that the BBC’s Proms last night (30 August) was a tribute to Vaughan Williams.

I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when I was 19 and I was staying in Wilderhope Manor on the slopes of Wenlock Edge. It was 1971 and I was walking through Shropshire, visiting small towns and villages such as Much Wenlock, Church Stretton, Longville and Shipton. Appropriately, the warden of the youth hostel suggested I should listen to Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge.

Six settings of poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad make up On Wenlock Edge, which is Vaughan Williams’s first totally characteristic work. The landscape inhabited by Housman is that of a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex evoked in the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return.

In recent weeks I have been listening again to some of those works I first came to know in the 1970s, including In the Fen Country (1904), Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1906, revised in 1914), The Wasps, based on the play by Aristophanes (1909), On Wenlock Edge (1909), Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, revised in 1913 and 1919), Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934) and The Lark Ascending (1914). In all these works, Vaughan Williams is characteristically English, and Bishop Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, say: “Many would claim he was the greatest 20th century English composer.”

A vicar’s son, Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. His father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, who died in 1875, was the Vicar of Down Ampney, while his mother, Margaret Susan Wedgwood (1843–1937), was a direct descendant of the Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood, and was related to the Darwin family – Charles Darwin was a great-uncle and Tony Benn is a distant cousin. With a background like that, it is little wonder that Vaughan Williams grew up with life-lasting democratic and egalitarian ideals – a socialist who refused all honours except the Order of Merit, which he accepted after the death of Elgar in 1935.

At the Royal College of Music, Vaughan Williams studied under the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. Later, as he read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, he became friends with the philosophers George Moore and Bertrand Russell.

During World War I, he was a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. His war-time experiences eventually led to his complete deafness in old age, but his Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) draws on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer. During World War II, he spoke up for his fellow composers Britten and Tippett who were conscientious objectors.

Last night, we heard three of his great works: His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was his first big public success when he conducted the premiere in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. His Serenade to Music – a setting of a scene from Act 5 of The Merchant of Venice – was written for orchestra and 16 vocal soloists as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood. His last symphony, his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, was written in 1956-1957 and is based on Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It was first performed in May 1958, just three months before his death. This dark and enigmatic work is regarded by many as a fitting conclusion to his sequence of symphonic works. When he died three months later, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

His second wife, the poet Ursula Wood, claimed he was an “atheist … [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.” But Vaughan Williams is a deeply mystical and spiritual composer, and many of his works have religious subject-matters.

His hymn settings include To be a pilgrim, based on John Bunyan’s hymn Who would true valour see, using the traditional Sussex melody Monk’s Gate; the tune Sine Nomine for William Walsham How’s For All the Saints; the tune Forest Green for the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks; and his setting for Come Down, O Love Divine, named Down Ampney after his birthplace. He wrote settings for canticles, carols and masses, and composed a Te Deum in G for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928.

With Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw, Vaughan Williams can be credited with the revival and spread of traditional and medaieval English musical forms. Without Vaughan Williams, it is impossible to imagine the English Hymnal (1906), for which he was the musical editor and in which he collaborated with Percy Dearmer.

In collaboration with the organists of Saint Mary’s, Primrose Hill, Martin and Geoffrey Shaw, Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer later produced two more hymnals, Songs of Praise (1925) and The Oxford Book of Carols (1928). These hymnals have been credited with reintroducing many elements of traditional and mediaeval English music into the Church of England, as well as carrying that influence into the rest of the Anglican Communion.

Without Vaughan Williams, where would Anglican liturgy, hymnody, music and spirituality be today? As David Johnson said in a recent essay (23 August) in The Tablet: “The preoccupation with the journey of the soul shines through the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams. His music is the enduring elgacy of one of the most insightful and visionary of pilgrims.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College