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Ralph Vaughan Williams: Ralph Vaughan Williams (b. Down Ampney, 1 2 Oct 1 872; d. London, 26 Aug 1958).
Ralph Vaughan Williams, the son of a clergyman, Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney on the 12th October 1872. His father died less than three years later; he was taken to live in Surrey in the family house of his mother. His intellectual ancestry was strong: lawyers on his father's side, Josiah Wedgwood and Charles Darwin on his mother's. There were pictures and books as well as music-making at Leith Hill Place. His mother installed a small organ for him to play, while his aunt taught him the piano and even put him in for a correspondence course in the theory of music; all this, as well as violin lessons, took place before he reached the age of nine. At his preparatory school near Brighton he went on with both his instruments, while at Charterhouse, which he entered in 1887, he presented his Trio in G major to an audience of staffand fellow-pupils.
By this time he had already decided to become a composer. After leaving Charterhouse he visited Germany and was able to hear Richard Wagner's Die Walkure; he was overwhelmingly impressed, and later said that after hearing Tristan und Isolde he was unable to sleep. Now he entered upon what was to be a long period of apprenticeship, going first to the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied with Hubert Parry, and then in 1892 to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read history and obtain his Bachelor of Music degree. He next returned to the Royal College, however, where he worked under Charles Stanford, made friends with his fellow student Gustav Hoist and played the organ in a South London church. In 1897 he married Adeline Fisher: his wife was both beautiful and intelligent, but they were to have no children and she was cruelly afflicted by arthritis for some forty years until her death in 1951. However, this was all in the future; for the moment things went well, and the honeymoon in Berlin was accompanied by Wagner's music (the Ring) and lessons with Max Bruch. In 1908 he was to go abroad again for his last formal instruction: this time it was Ravel who (mainly with orchestration exercises) was chosen to provide 'a little French polish'.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was fortunate in having a private income. But he devoted himself to composition in a professional manner, working regular hours, setting himself high standards and revising extensively. He was also in demand as a scholar, contributing articles to Grove's Dictionary, giving lectures, and editing the English Hymnal (1906). One of its tunes (No. 402) is a folk song named after the place where Ralph Vaughan Williams first heard it, Monks Gate near Horsham in Sussex: the composer had by this time developed what was to be a lifelong interest in English folk melody. His music was profoundly affected by the melodic shape, rhythmic character and above all the atmosphere which he found in folk song; 'the art of music above all other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation', he declared. Not only rural music, but also popular songs of barrel-organ or music-hall type were included: the composer of the Pastoral Symphony (1922) had already written a London Symphony in 1914.
When war brokeout in 1914, Ralph Vaughan Williams, although over forty, volunteered for military service, and spent most of the war in the ranks although he was commissioned in 1918. After demobilisation he was invited to join the teaching staff of the Royal College of Music; his 'method' seems to have been that of drawing out his pupils' musical personalities rather than imparting ready-made, anonymous technical expertise. He also took on the conductorship of the Bach Choir in 1921. His reputation as a composer had spread steadily, and in 1922 he accepted an invitation to conduct his new Pastoral Symphony in the United States.
The last thirty years or so of Ralph Vaughan Williams's life are mainly a record of creative work, growing fame and honours. Long before his death at the age of eighty-five he had been dubbed the 'grand old man of English music', a bulky yet not formidable figure with a thatch of snowy hair, often to be seen in London at concerts or the opera. He lived at a house called The White Gates, near Dorking in Surrey, and involved himself with the local Leith Hill Festival as a conductor and adviser. He defended contemporaries who fell foul of conservative critics and, though not sharing Michael Tippett's pacifist convictions, threw the weight of his name behind the younger composer's conscientious objection in 1943. After his wife's death in 1951, he married the writer Ursula Wood in February 1953. He was now eighty; the Surrey house was sold and he and his new wife moved to Hanover Terrace, Regent's Park, an attractive London home where he was to spend the rest of his life. But he had by no means retired from active work and diversion: there were two more symphonies yet to come and a visit to the United States in 1954 lasting four months during which, after one wearing day's sight-seeing, he insisted on observing the sunset from the top of the Empire State Building. The Americans greatly took to him, describing him as a 'Miltonic figure' whose music had 'splendour without tinsel'. Though he now had to use a hearing aid, he continued until his death to enjoy all kinds of music-making. On the day he died, it had been arranged for him to attend a recording session of his Ninth Symphony.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was in some senses a nationalist composer, like Bartok in Hungary or Falla in Spain. But he felt that a composer's having roots was not the same as narrow provincialism, and he used to cite Johann Sebastian Bach's long residence in Leipzig as an example of how universal genius emerged without deliberate cosmopolitanism. He wrote in 1942 that the love of one's country and customs was essential, adding that only on such bases could be built 'a united Europe and a world federation'. But folk song never shackled his individuality, and works such as the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are English-sounding only in the way in which (say) a Johannes Brahms symphony sounds German. He has sometimes been described as an agnostic, and was reticent about his religious views, but the numerous sacred works he composed, including the opera The Pilgrim's Progress (1949), are instinct with visionary spiritual force. In his songs his wide knowledge of English poetry, coupled with his insight, provide an extensive and important repertory. He stands between Elgar and Britten as the outstanding figure of his generation in English music.
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