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Ralph Vaughan Williams Biography

Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Born: 1872. Died: 1958. Lived in: England

Composer, Conductor. He is considered the most important and influential British musician of his generation. Vaughan Williams' music displays a distinctly English character derived from his country's folk and Renaissance tradition, which he absorbed into a very personal style. His nine symphonies constitute one of the outstanding achievements of the 20th Century repertory. Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Vaughan Williams was born at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, the son of a clergyman. On his mother's side of the family he was related to Charles Darwin. He studied at the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge, followed by private instruction with Max Bruch in Berlin (1897). Despite his talent and training he was slow to develop as a artist because he had little sympathy for the Wagner-dominated musical scene of the time. While at the RCM in 1895 he formed a lifelong friendship with fellow student Gustav Holst, and the two tackled the problem of creating a new home-grown musical idiom. Vaughan Williams hit upon a solution through his discovery of old English folk and church music. From 1903 he gathered and published over 800 country tunes while also serving as editor of "The English Hymnal" (1904 to 1906), a collection of sacred vocal works from the 16th Century to the early 1900s. He contributed several original pieces to this set, in which he experimented with Elizabethan modal harmony within a modern framework.

He remained dissatisfied with his technique, however, and in 1908 he went to Paris to study orchestration with Maurice Ravel, who opened up new worlds of sound and color to him. This proved a breakthrough and bore immediate fruit in the song cycle "On Wenlock Edge" (1909), the incidental music to "The Wasps" (1909), the majestic "A Sea Symphony" (1910), and his first true masterpiece, the "Fantasia on a Theme from Thomas Tallis" (1910) for string orchestra. With these opuses Vaughan Williams almost single-handedly launched a new Nationalist movement that inspired many composers in the United Kingdom. This was followed by "The Lark Ascending" for violin and orchestra (1914), and one of his most popular works, "A London Symphony" (1914), a dawn-to-dusk musical depiction of life in the metropolis. During World War I he served as an enlisted man in Macedonia and then as an artillery officer in France; the latter experience resulted in hearing loss that deteriorated into near-total deafness as he grew older.

Following his demobilization he began a 20-year stint (1919 to 1939) as professor of composition at the RCM. Vaughan Williams' reputation as a composer of folksy reflection was shattered by his explosive Symphony No. 4 (1935). Although there had been hints of unease and violence in some of the inter-war works - the Symphony No. 3 ("Pastoral", 1922), the choral "Sancta Civitas" (1925), and especially the ballet "Job" (1930) - nothing prepared listeners for the sustained fury of the Fourth, which revealed a strain in the composer's creative personality he usually held in check. (At a rehearsal of the symphony he remarked, "I don't know if I like it, but it's what I meant"). The elegiac calm of the Symphony No. 5 (1943), completed when he was 70, led many to regard it as his valedictory, but he again confounded the critics with the chilling, almost nihilistic Sixth Symphony (1948). Meanwhile, Vaughan Williams had found a new stimulus in writing movie music, beginning with "The 49th Parallel" (1941). The theme of the film "Scott of the Antarctic" (1948) - doomed yet heroic endeavor in a desolate landscape - was in perfect accord with his postwar outlook and he later adapted parts of the score into the "Sinfonia Antarctica" (1952), the best known of his symphonies after the "London". He remained active to the end, finishing his Symphony No. 9 shortly before his death at 85. Apart from composing, he was conductor of the Leith Hill Festival from 1905 to 1953, lectured throughout Europe and the United States, and was much involved with amateur musical groups. A gruff, down-to-earth man who loathed pretentiousness, Vaughan Williams refused a knighthood and all other government honors except for the Order of Merit, conferred upon him in 1935. His personal beliefs were humanist and agnostic, and when he set sacred texts it was to express a sense of communion with people rather than an expression of religious faith. Yet there is a spiritual quality to his music, particularly in his glowing slow movements, that have caused many to describe it as "visionary". And for all its Englishness and its creator's seemingly parochial attitude about it - his personal motto was "Every composer cannot expect to have a worldwide message, but he can reasonably expect to have a special message for his own people" - Vaughan Williams' achievements are direct and universal in their appeal.

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