Vaughan Williams

Composer and radical

Composer and radical

The 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ birth this year has prompted an upsurge in the programming of his music across the country, the publication of several new books on aspects of his life and work, and numerous reassessments of his legacy across all media. The words “conservative” and “tradition” tend to crop up in headlines (“not quite conservative”, “a conservative’s regard for tradition”), while accompanying images show the composer in old age: a large-limbed man encased in a rumpled three-piece suit, his expression rather severe. He appears to be the embodiment of the English country gentleman, a reassuring national treasure.

Yet it is difficult to sustain such assumptions in the light of current re-appraisals. Imaginative programming has explored the composer’s less well-known works, which challenge the characterisation of his oeuvre as purely pastoral. The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis remain prominent – this is music which provides comfort in hard times – but the unsettling tension of Symphony No 4 or the chilliness of his film music for Scott of the Antarctic have also received airings. In parallel with this wider appreciation of Vaughan Williams’ musical breadth, a more nuanced understanding of him as a man is to be welcomed.

By the same process that transforms the bohemian quarter of a town into a respectable suburb, Vaughan Williams has undergone gentrification over the past few decades, from radical to pillar of the Establishment. It is true that he was born into a life of privilege – his mother’s parents were Josiah Wedgwood, grandson of the founder of the Wedgwood porcelain company, and Caroline Darwin, sister of Charles – but he inherited from the two families a shared culture that was intellectual and non-conformist. Vaughan Williams later described himself as a representative of “north-midland, lower-middle-class, unitarian, Wedgwood prudence.”

While still a teenager at Charterhouse school he realised he was an atheist, but he continued to go to church “so as not to upset the family”. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, he walked into Hall one evening and declared in a loud voice “Who believes in God nowadays, I should like to know?” Michael Kennedy, writing in his 1964 biography, coined the much-quoted description of the composer as “that extremely English product, the natural nonconformist with a conservative regard for the best tradition.” But this was originally written in the context of the composer’s attitude towards church music, not as a general analysis of his world view. Kennedy was attempting to explain how lack of religious conviction did not blind Vaughan Williams to the beauty of the language in the King James Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress, nor prevent him from spending two years as music editor for The English Hymnal. His passion for church music led some people to argue that, deep down, he must have held Christian beliefs, but Vaughan Williams himself said: “There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass.” Ursula Vaughan Williams, his second wife, claimed he “later drifted into cheerful agnosticism,” but, much like his continued church attendance as a boy, this was possibly an easy accommodation to avoid controversy. Though he was drawn towards mysticism and matters of the spirit, he did not fit into a religious category; as he explained when he changed the name of Bunyan’s main protagonist in The Pilgrim’s Progress from “Christian” to “Pilgrim”: “I want the idea to be universal and to apply to anybody who aims at the spiritual life…”

In politics, Vaughan Williams’ views were always left-leaning. He remembered that at school he and another boy “stood out as Radical”; when he got to Cambridge, he and his friends “read the Fabian tracts, and in opposition to the majority of undergraduates, became socialists.” In his 70th year he wrote to the communist, Rutland Boughton, that, “Ever since I had a vote I have voted either Radical or Labour,” and had “refused all honours and appointments which involved obligations to anyone in authority,” including a knighthood.

Despite this radical background, Vaughan Williams is frequently associated with flag-waving patriotism and a kind of sepia-toned nostalgia, based largely on his involvement in folk song collecting and its influence on work “redolent of the countryside and the morris dance and the spirit of a merrier England.” He was evangelical in his belief that folk songs could provide inspiration for a new school of English music, but only if they could speak to the present – he did not wish for “a sham return to an imaginary (probably quite illusory) Arcadia of several centuries ago.” In his essays on national music, written in the run up to WWII, he is careful to point out that he is not preaching “artistic chauvinism” and he was opposed to the mixing of propaganda and art. Far from being a political nationalist, he was an outspoken and active supporter of European union; during the war he established and chaired a local Dorking branch of the Federal Union, and after the war he joined with other eminent artists in calling for the “merging of sovereignty by all the peace-loving nations of the world.”

Although he is frequently portrayed as a country gentleman or yeoman – his music was once described by an admiring critic as “mainly from a world of horses and hay” – he did not aspire to such a life. After leaving his family’s country house at Leith Hill, Surrey, for university, he never returned to live there but settled in the capital with his first wife, Adeline. They lived in the city for over 30 years, and he suggested that his London Symphony should have been called Symphony by a Londoner. In 1929, he and Adeline moved into a modest bungalow in Dorking, partly in response to her disabling rheumatoid arthritis, but also to be nearer to his mother and sister, who were still living at Leith Hill Place. When he finally inherited the estate in 1944 he decided against becoming the squire and gifted it to the National Trust, because: “if I had to decide what trees were to be cut, what vegetables planted, what cows sold, I should lose all pleasure in the place… and I shouldn’t have any time for my own work.”

In older age he retained his radical tendencies, often expressed through campaigning letters to the editor of the Times. He was mainly concerned with defending aspects of the arts but was occasionally moved to promote a political opinion. In 1936 he joined other well-known artists in signing a letter that deplored the support of the British popular press for the military revolt in Spain against the democratically elected government; in 1950 he supported a letter calling for “the establishment of world federal government”; and in 1957, the year before his death, he wrote in defence of the Third Programme: “We spend millions of pounds every year in finding out how to kill people, and in destroying all that many people think worth having in this life. Is it not worthwhile to spend a small proportion of our wealth in increasing the value of our life?”

Vaughan Williams admitted that he instinctively took an oppositional position – “when I am with Conservatives I become Socialistic and when I am with Socialists I become true blue Tory” – but his nonconformist streak never faded. It would be a worthwhile achievement of this celebratory year if the word “radical” became associated with his name a little more often.

Caroline Davison is author of “The Captain’s Apprentice: Ralph Vaughan Williams and the story of a folk song” (Chatto & Windus). Published for Vaughan Williams’s 150th anniversary, the book has recently featured on Radio 4’s Book of the Week

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November 2022, People, reputations

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