Ralph Vaughan Williams – Painter of musical canvases

This month marks the anniversary of the birth of  Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) 1872-1958. He was a popular and prolific English composer of orchestral works, choral music, operas,  symphonies, chamber music and film scores.

As well as composing, which he did into his eighties, he conducted, lectured and edited other music, notably the English Hymnal.
He also became interested in English folk music and song. He was concerned that they would become extinct, and travelled about transcribing and preserving material, some of which he later included in his works.

It has been said that RVW could paint a picture in sound. His Lark Ascending is typical of his pastoral works and is thought to be one of the finest pieces of English music ever written. Based on a poem by George Meredith, it evokes images for the listener – beautiful summer days, birdsong, flowers, gentle water and languid peace.

Recently, a CD of his Sancta Civitas and Dona Nobis Pacem was short-listed for Best CD in the Choral section of the Gramophone Awards. These are considered to be two of RVW’s finest choral works.

Sancta Civitas – The Holy City, is a powerful oratorio written in the early 1920s. RVW drew inspiration from the Book of Revelation and it is a musical depiction of the battle between Good and Evil. It was said to be his favourite choral work.

Dona pacem nobis– Grant us peace,  is a cantata written in 1936 as the war clouds were beginning to gather again in Europe. He sourced his texts from the Mass, the Bible, Walt Whitman poems and a political speech. Even though he was older and it was not required, RVW chose to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps in WWI. This work is viewed as his plea for future peace.

RVW was born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class being related to both the Wedgewoods and the Darwins but it is said he never took his fortunate situation for granted and worked all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals in which he believed.

One thought on “Ralph Vaughan Williams – Painter of musical canvases

  1. Lynners 23 October 2010 / 1:31 pm

    Some years ago Vaughan-Williams Lark Ascending was voted the most likely musical work to make its listeners cry, so strong is its evocation of
    past times and pastoral peace.

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