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Summary Article: Vaughan Williams, Ralph
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

English composer. His style was late-Romantic tonal/modal, and his works contain many references to the English countryside through the use of folk themes. Among his works are the orchestral Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910); the opera Sir John in Love (1929), featuring the Elizabethan song ‘Greensleeves’; and nine symphonies (1909–57).

Vaughan Williams was born at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, the son of a clergyman. He was educated at Charterhouse School in 1887–90, and Trinity College, Cambridge, 1892–95. The years in between were devoted to study at the Royal College of Music in London, where he returned for another year after Cambridge. He learnt the piano and organ but was always determined to be a composer. On leaving the Royal College of Music in 1896 he became organist at South Lambeth Church in London and saved enough money to gain further experience by study abroad, first at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, under Max Bruch, and in 1909 with Maurice Ravel in Paris. In 1901 he completed a PhD at Cambridge.

In 1904 he joined the Folk-Song Society (established in 1898) and began to take an active interest in the recovery and study of old country tunes, collecting some in Norfolk. His first public success was with Toward the Unknown Region at the Leeds Festival in 1907 and this was followed in 1909 by his first great and characteristic compositions, the Wasps overture, the song cycle On Wenlock Edge, and A Sea Symphony (the first to use a chorus throughout). From 1906 he was editor of the English Hymnal, and this resulted in one of his best-loved works, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for strings, (1910). (The sense of religious wonder evoked by this music was later enhanced in such biblically-inspired works as the masque Job (1931) and the opera The Pilgrim's Progress (1925–51)).

In World War I he served in the army in Macedonia and France. After the war he was appointed professor of composition at the Royal College of Music. The English pastoral tradition was revived in his 3rd symphony, the Pastoral (1921), and in the next few years he produced a series of sacred works such as the Mass in G minor, Sancta Civitas, and Benedicite. His two best-known symphonies, nos. 4 and 5, were composed between 1934 and 1943. The last four symphonies continued the composer's spiritual quest, already begun in The Pilgrim's Progress. Although Vaughan Williams's compositions are usually considered as pastoral, through the use of folk melodies, he was aware of contemporary musical developments and often included more dissonance in his later works, though in a colouristic, watered-down way.

WorksOpera and dramaThe Pilgrim's Progress (after Bunyan, begun 1925, premiered 1951); masque Job (on Blake's illustrations, 1931); incidental music for Aristophanes' Wasps (1909); film music, including Scott of the Antarctic (1948).

Choral Mass in G minor, Anglican services; (with orchestra) Toward the Unknown Region (Whitman), A Sea Symphony (no. 1) (Whitman, 1903–09), Five Mystical Songs (Herbert, 1911), Flos Campi (Song of Solomon, 1925), Five Tudor Portraits (Skelton, 1935), Serenade to Music for 16 solo voices and orchestra (from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, 1938).

OrchestralIn the Fen Country, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for strings (1910), A London Symphony (no. 2, 1912–13), A Pastoral Symphony (no. 3, 1921), symphonies nos. 4–9 (1937, 1943, 1947, 1952, 1955, 1957), Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ for strings and harps (1939); The Lark Ascending (after Meredith) for violin and orchestra (1914), concerto for oboe and strings (1944), tuba concerto (1954).

Chamber and songsOn Wenlock Edge (Housman) for tenor, string quartet, and piano (1909); many songs, including Songs of Travel (Stevenson, 1901–04); ten William Blake songs for high voice and oboe; folk-song arrangements.

quotations

Vaughan Williams, Ralph

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