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Ralph Vaughan Williams feels to me almost like family. I grew up in the 1950s with his music on the radio and the tales of my older sisters, who were evacuated during the War to sleepy Dorking where he lived in a house at the edge of the town. Beatrice got taken with her class to sing for him at The White Gates on his 70th birthday, in October 1942. ‘Very shabbily dressed,’ she recalls, ‘his socks didn’t match’.
Her impression was confirmed to me recently by a man whose father owned the photographers’ shop on Dorking High Street. ‘He looked like a tramp,’ said Paul Styles. ‘My father stepped out into his path one day and asked if he’d mind sitting for a portrait. He was very gracious about it.’ That session yielded an iconic image, a kindly old chap with a cat on his lap. The cat was called Foxy. This is not the stuff of which Great Composers are typically made.
Nor is this: a mission statement made in 1912 when VW was 40, just beginning to make his name. ‘The Composer,’ he writes, in the magazine of the Royal College of Music, ‘must not shut himself up and think about art; he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole community.’
In the century of the ascendant ego, here is a man who dares to resist the cult of celebrity, to walk humbly with his gift, heedless of his own posterity – so much so that he almost lost it. Where most music goes into limbo for a decade after the composer’s death, VW went out of fashion for half a century after 1958, pushed to the fringes by atonal modernism and aggressively simplistic post-modernism.
The tide, though, is on the turn. The Philharmonia Orchestra are playing the symphonies in London, Bedford and Leicester, only the second time the VW nine have ever been done complete. There is a healthy sampling of 15 works in the summer Proms, and the Brighton Festival is doing the one-act opera Riders to the Sea, to be revived next season at ENO. Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was the theme for ITV’s Boat Race coverage, much to the mystification of sports bloggers, and there is a 90-minute film coming up on BBC4 which deftly untangles the old man’s marital ménage a trois. More than just a dutiful jubilee tribute, this starts to look like old Uncle Ralph is making a comeback, and about time, too.
English as cucumber sandwiches, VW came from a line of Wedgewoods and Darwins and was raised in the green and pleasant. When he asked to know as a child how the world was created, his mother explained: ‘The Bible says it took six days, great-uncle Charles thinks rather longer.’ Both parts of her answer were formative: although agnostic, VW composed some of the Church of England’s most heavenly hymns.
As a young man he went with Gustav Holst on country rambles, collecting folk songs, before taking himself to Berlin to study with Max Bruch and to Paris with Ravel. His first big work, the Sea Symphony, burst on the 1910 Leeds Festival with a distinctly unElgarian recklessness. He married Adeline, a cousin of Virginia Woolf’s and had just finished the London Symphony when war broke out and he lied his age down to 39 to enlist as a private soldier.
Sent to France, he shuttled casualties on stretchers and suffered hearing loss from artillery. He returned to a wife crippled by arthritis and an England he hardly recognised. The third symphony, titled Pastoral, is a pastel wash of battle landscapes; the fourth is among the bleakest ever written, akin to Sibelius’s sixth.
Between the wars he flirted harmlessly with his Royal College students – ‘we always called him the Uncle’, says one dear old girl in John Bridcut’s new film – until, in 1938, he fell in love with Ursula Wood, an army bride of traffic-stopping beauty. Bridcut’s film reveals that they became lovers immediately and that Ursula had an abortion, not knowing if the foetus was Wood’s or VW’s.
Ursula, who died last October, married him on Adeline’s death in 1951, after 13 years of respectable subterfuge. She told me once of VW’s energetic efforts to house Hitler refugees in Dorking and how he accepted the University of Hamburg’s Shakespeare Prize on condition ‘that I shall be free as an honourable man to hold and express any views on the general state of Germany’ (the prize was withdrawn).
During the Second World War, VW assumed the oracular role to English audiences that Shostakovich did to Russians. Crowds surged to his fifth symphony in the hope of glimpsing victory and a better world beyond. In peacetime, he turned bleak once more. Famous as he was, he refused all official titles and conducted amateur choirs in Dorking with scruffy gusto and unfailing courtesy, always remembering to thank the worst of his singers for their enthusiasm. He strikes me the kind of man whose greatest effort went into concealing his greatness. At 85, preparing for the next day’s recording of his ninth symphony, he died in his sleep on September 26, 1958.
That so vital a composer could fade from the centre of our attention is down to the fickleness of the classical music establishment. No sooner was he dead than BBC mandarins wrote him off as English and reactionary, when he was the least insular of composers and socially among the most progressive. It did not help that his few posthumous champions came from the political right, and that the piece by which he is best known is the rosy-toned arcadian setting of Henry VIII’s Greensleeves.
There may be one further reason for his retreat. VW was always best served by the less flamboyant conductors. Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli were his choice interpreters. The colourful Thomas Beecham actively disliked him.
That dichotomy persists. The Phiharmonia cycle is conducted by Richard Hickox, the Proms by Andrew Davis, Leonard Slatkin, Mark Elder. The flashier baton of Simon Rattle is conspicuous in its present VW abstinence.
Not that it matters much, since the wind is now blowing his way. The Lark Ascending has just come top of a poll of Classic FM listeners and when television viewers hear the Tallis Fantasia as the long boats flicker down the River Thames, some think ‘there will always be an England’ while others rush to their blogs to proclaim, ‘that is a sound that I want to hear for the rest of my days.’ Uncle Ralph is home. Tea, anyone?
John Bridcut’s film The Passions of Vaughan Williams is on BBC4, Friday May 23
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]