Article

Allen C. Guelzo


A Vaughan Williams Elegy

"Cheerful agnosticism"?

Writing the biographies of politicians or generals requires no special language; the biographies of writers can, without much more difficulty, be laid out with extracts from their writings to illustrate their style or their faults. The biographies of artists pose a greater difficulty, but the reproduction of a painting or photograph will do the work a thousand words cannot. However, writing the biography of a composer places the biographer in a much more difficult position. Musical samples can, like illustrations, be reproduced in the text (as in Jan Swafford's Johannes Brahms: A Biography), but no large body of readers is going to be able to decipher them on sight. Yet if the biographer skips the musical technicalities and concentrates on writing a life-and-times (as in Howard Pollack's Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World), then the gift which made the subject worth writing about in the first place fades into an impenetrable mist.

Keith Alldritt's Vaughan Williams: Composer, Radical, Patriot—A Biography falls into the second category of musical biography, along with many of the drawbacks that accompany it. Alldritt is, by trade, a novelist and a biographer of statesmen (Churchill, Roosevelt) and modern British writers (Orwell, Lawrence, Yeats, Eliot), with only one slim musical title to his credit, Elgar on the Journey to Hanley (a romance about Elgar and Dora Penny, the 'Dorabella' of the Enigma Variations). From this unpromising platform, Alldritt finds himself tackling Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom many revere as the greatest name in British music in the 20th century, and upon whom equal numbers have bestowed the pitying glance and heavy sigh, as though he were a provincial musical handy-man capable only of writing 'cow-pat music.' As if this were not intimidating enough, Alldritt's is the first full-scale biography of Vaughan Williams to be attempted since the re-tooling of Michael Kennedy's The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1980, and, more to the point, since Hugh Cobbe's enormous collection of Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1895-1958 (2008) and the death of the composer's second wife, Ursula, in 2007, who had ditched a deep moat around her husband's life.

But even in the face of these challenges, Alldritt does a fine job of breathing readable life into the man he lauds for having "musicalized a very long historical tract of English experience and feeling." Born in 1872 in the Cotswold village of Down Ampney, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a son of the vicarage: his father, Arthur Vaughan Williams, was rector of All Saints Church and an Oxford man who had drunk deeply of John Henry Newman's Tracts for the Times. But the Vaughan Williams family connections extended far beyond the parish hedgerows. His grandfather, Judge Edward Vaughan Williams, was the author of the long-standing Treatise on the Law of Executors and Administrators, married into the landed gentry, and was knighted by Queen Victoria. Moreover, Edward Vaughan Williams had befriended Henry Hart Milman (dean of St. Paul's), Henry George Liddell (co-author of the Liddell and Scott's Greek-English lexicon) and Richard Chenevix Trench (Dean of Westminster Abbey and later the Church of Ireland's Archbishop of Dublin), so it is no surprise that two of the judge's sons went into the Church.

What is surprising is that Arthur Vaughan Williams took as his wife Margaret Susan Wedgwood. Surprising, because the Wedgwoods were not only the fabulously wealthy offspring of the famous pottery-maker and Non-Conformist, Josiah Wedgwood, but were entwined by intermarriage to the Darwins. Ralph Vaughan Williams' grandmother, who had married the second Josiah Wedgwood, was Charles Darwin's sister.

That should have marked Ralph Vaughan Williams from his cradle as bound, like his older brother Hervey, for the bench or the Civil Service, or for a quiet life of rural pottering-about. Instead, in 1890, he announced that he wanted to become an orchestral musician (specifically, a violist). As Alldritt wickedly puts it, his family, "so well placed in London society, would surely have considered viola playing to be no career for a gentleman," and his Darwin cousins laughed that "he can't play the simplest thing decently." But Vaughan Williams was convinced he "should have made quite a decent fiddler," and he talked the family into letting him study for a year at the Royal College of Music under the genial Charles Hubert Parry, who taught the 18-year-old composition.

The RCM left a deep mark on Vaughan Williams, and not only because Parry was a beloved teacher. Founded in 1882 with Sir George Grove as principal, the RCM breathed the atmosphere of a practical, almost working-class academy for minting orchestral musicians. "Write choral music as befits an Englishman and a democrat," Parry advised him, and the advice guided Vaughan Williams in both respects for the rest of his life. Still, one year was all he was granted before the firm familial hand at the back steered him to a more conventional university career at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a BA in history. But Cambridge did little to rinse the RCM out of his system, and in 1895, Vaughan Williams truculently returned to the RCM, now to study composition under Charles Villiers Stanford and to meet his fellow-spirit, Gustav Holst. Two years later, he was off to Berlin to take advanced lessons in composition under Max Bruch, and in 1898 he wrote out his first essays in large-scale composition—two quintets, a song cycle, a serenade, a Bucolic Suite, and a Heroic Elegy and Triumphal Epilogue.

Vaughan Williams has long had the reputation of being a late bloomer, and it is not undeserved. The catalyst that propelled him to fame was the modest invitation of Percy Dearmer in 1904 to join the editorial staff of Dearmer's new project, The English Hymnal. Vaughan Williams' work on the Hymnal not only plunged him into the long history of English church music—from Tallis and Byrd to the Victorians—but into English folk-song and the use of modes as an alternative to keys.[1] Modes are, in the simplest form, scales played only with the white keys (the 'Phrygian' mode, for instance, begins on e and proceeds up along f-g-a-b-c-d-e, rather than e-f#-g#-a-b-c#-d#). Modality intrigued Vaughan Williams as both fresh and naturally 'English,' and it put him on the track not only of Tudor polyphony but also of folk-song collection.

The giant strides of the Industrial Revolution had, as Thomas Hardy's novels bleakly illustrated, emptied the English countryside of much of its traditional rural population and the folk culture that went with them. The Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris's Arts-and-Crafts movement struggled to preserve the dying embers of folk culture, and they had their counterpart in Cecil Sharp and the folk-song revival. Not that the folk-song collectors were necessarily applauded for their efforts. One critic sniffed in 1909 that folk-song was useless for modern music because "it is not comprehensive enough"; another scorned folk-song as a plunge into "the primitive." And it is true that the folk-song enthusiasts were all-too-often little more than wealthy aesthetes doing cultural penance, a profile Vaughan Williams certainly fit. But as he fanned out over the Norfolk and Surrey countryside, music paper and gramophone horn in tow, he discovered what amounted to an entirely new musical language. Nor was it always produced by singers like "Mr. Pottiphar," who first sang for him "Through Bushes and Through Briars." He told one inquirer that he "once heard a Gaelic preacher" who "when he got excited … recited on a fixed succession notes" (it was a sequence of g-a-g-f-g-d), and in 1914 Vaughan Williams made that sequence one of the principal themes in A London Symphony.[2]

These discoveries would produce both the trite—his simple Norfolk Rhapsody of 1906—and the profound, the latter emerging in his gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in 1910. The Tallis Fantasia—which gets surprisingly short shrift in Alldritt's telling—is based on a Phrygian psalm tune written by Tallis for Archbishop Matthew Parker's metrical psalter in 1567. Not only the Tallis theme but Vaughan Williams' counter-themes and harmony were modeled on the e-f and b-c intervals typical of the Phrygian mode. It was the aural equivalent of the resurrection of Lazarus, and has sounded like it ever since.

This did not free Vaughan Williams entirely from the gooey late Romanticism he had learned from Parry and Stanford. He would slog on, writing public-festival music like Toward the Unknown Region (1907) and A Sea Symphony (1910). It was not until his violin rhapsody The Lark Ascending (in 1920) and his third symphony, the 'Pastoral Symphony,' in 1922, that Vaughan Williams gave himself over completely to the new tongue of modality—parallel triads and chords in the 'Pastoral,' a first movement cast in Mixolydian, the use of a natural trumpet in the second. But by that time, a good deal else in Vaughan Williams' life had changed as well.

It is difficult to disentangle Vaughan Williams' life from his music, for the simple reason that he lived so long (he was eighty-five when he died in his sleep in 1958) and wrote so much, so persistently, and in so many different musical genres: nine symphonies, four operas, two concertos, string quartets, reams of choral music, ballet, and even film scores. Roughly, one can periodize Vaughan Williams' writing into four stages, from 1898 to 1914 (when he was shuffling slowly through late Romanticism of the Brahms and Elgar variety), from 1920 to 1934 (which includes the 'Pastoral,' the folk opera Hugh the Drover, and Job, the Tudor-like 'masque for dancing'), a brief but substantial dalliance with a rambunctious modernism from 1934 to 1944 (in the manner of Hindemith and Kodaly), and finally a return to serenity in the works that begin with the 5th Symphony and include The Pilgrim's Progress (1951) and Hodie (1953). In 1951, Winston Churchill would hail him "our greatest English composer, and great musical ambassador."

But Alldritt is, nevertheless, keen on avoiding a purely musical biography. Alldritt is more interested in, and more attentive to, the personal turmoils in the life of a man who otherwise came to symbolize English music with an outwardly unruffled and avuncular spirit. As Alldritt makes clear, there was nothing unruffled about Vaughan Williams' ascendance. The polite scorn of his family made him ruthlessly self-deprecating.[3] Few of his larger works escaped relentless editing and re-editing, no doubt to the despair of his publishers.

On the other hand, this enforced humility also bred in Vaughan Williams an aversion to the sort of snotty modernism being assumed by the following generation—Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, William Walton—who were eager to dismiss Vaughan Williams as nothing more than "a nice man." He took offense at some "young exquisite" who sniffed at Bach for being "so bourgeois." Vaughan Williams retorted that "being bourgeois myself I considered Bach the greatest of all composers":

It is Bach's intense humanity which endears him to me and my fellow bourgeois. The proletarians (if there are any in this country) would be too much preoccupied with their wrongs, and the 'governing classes' (if indeed they existed outside the imagination of the New Statesman) would be too much occupied in preserving their rights to have time to be human.

In an essay defending Gustav Holst, he scorned modernists as would-be bohemians, "pretending you like absinthe and keeping a mistress in Montmartre."[4] Alldritt retails a marvelous anecdote about a meeting Vaughan Williams had in London with Norman Peterkin of Oxford University Press. Walton showed up for an appointment with Peterkin, and loudly asked the office staff whether "the old buffer is going to monopolise him all morning." As Vaughan Williams was leaving, he apologized to Walton for keeping him, and Peterkin subsequently learned that the staff thought "VW was far nicer to W. than W. was to him, and W. is not considered to be a gentleman I gather!"

Vaughan Williams danced the same pattern in politics, which Alldritt makes a significant part of his story. The Wedgwoods were resolutely Liberal in politics in an evangelical and Gladstonian way, and the young Vaughan Williams went up to Cambridge reading Fabian tracts and resolutely announcing himself as a socialist. This was the socialism, however, not of Marx nor even Lloyd George, but of a vague classless pre-industrial communalism, more backwards-looking and wistful than progressive, and more gypsy than bohemian (something which shows up in spades in Songs of Travel and Hugh the Drover). So, when World War I broke out, he had no hesitations about enlisting in the Royal Army Medical Corps (he was too old for front-line combat) and spent the entirety of the war in France, Greece, and England. As much as he liked to tell people that he always voted "either Radical or Labour," he called down a pox on both houses during the General Strike, and in the climactic 1945 elections voted Conservative. He balked at solicitations from left-wing festival organizers: "I do not care about mixing propaganda and art," he tartly informed the promoter of the Festival of Music for the People in 1939, "and I do not quite see that the people who hold particular views should arrogate to themselves and none others the title of 'Workers.' " Still, he refused a knighthood, and intervened during World War II to protect a pacifist (Michael Tippett) and an outright communist (Rutland Boughton) from official harassment—even while adding that "I am strongly opposed to them." Something in Vaughan Williams yearned (like the character of Proclean in the incidental music he wrote for The Wasps in 1909) for escape; something "bourgeois" invariably pulled him back. If he had been an American, he would have dreamt of running away to the circus or the sea.

The irony of this is that Vaughan Williams actually did keep a mistress, if not in Montmartre but Bloomsbury. He married a typically Pre-Raphaelite beauty, Adeline Fisher, in 1897, but the marriage produced neither fizz nor children. After Gustav Holst's premature death in 1934 and Adeline's progressive disability by rheumatoid arthritis, an increasingly isolated Vaughan Williams made a heavy pass at a young poet, Ursula Woods. Far from rejecting the advances of a man almost old enough to be her grandfather, Woods encouraged them. Still, he would neither desert nor neglect Adeline as she descended into helpless near-paralysis. Gradually, they set up, not one but two ménage a trois, and probably with Adeline's connivance. Two years after Adeline's death in 1951, Ursula and Ralph Vaughan Williams married, and she became his literary collaborator and the duster of his musical reputation for the rest of his life, and beyond.[5]

More people today encounter Vaughan Williams in church, through their hymnals, choir anthems, and cantatas, than in the concert hall, especially in the United States. As editor of The English Hymnal and then later Songs of Praise, Vaughan Williams introduced a wealth of arrangements from folk-song (an example being the tune 'Forest Green' for "O Little Town of Bethlehem") and his own compositions ("For All The Saints," "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones," and "Come Down, O Love Divine"). But Vaughan Williams, even though the son of a clergyman, shunned the title of Christian. Arthur Vaughan Williams had died when his son was only two years old, and like many of the modern congregation of the fatherless—Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, Camus—the young Vaughan Williams found himself unable to believe freely in a Heavenly Father. He was confirmed in the Church of England as a teenager, but by his Cambridge days he was defining himself as "a most determined atheist," and he left his first musical job as an organist at St. Barnabas, South Lambeth, when the vicar tried to require him to take Communion.[6] Apart from his work editing The English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams wrote no church music before World War I, and favored a sort of woolly transcendentalism akin to the Whitman texts he set in Toward the Unknown Region and A Sea Symphony. When he set five of George Herbert's poems in 1911, he entitled them Five Mystical Songs, with the stress on the 'mystical' rather than the Christian.

That changed almost as soon as he was demobilized. The war scarred Vaughan Williams in the same way, if not to the same depth, that it had scarred his entire generation. Musical friends and protégés—George Butterworth in particular—had been gassed, killed, maimed, and mentally destroyed, and his own tasks as a medical orderly gave him a close-enough view of the mass human destruction the 1914-18 war had wrought to darken several lifetimes. No sooner was he back at composing than a fountain of religious works erupted: the motet O vos omnes and the Mass in g (1920-1), The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, adapted from Bunyan (1922), and the oratorio Sancta Civitas on St. John's Revelation (1923), all of which exude a deadly serious treatment of their texts. And the Mass contains a cry of musical anguish in the 'Agnus Dei' that confounds any attempt to explain it away as conventionality. All through the Blitz, Vaughan Williams would read "the epistle and Gospel for the week" from the Book of Common Prayer to Adeline after breakfast, and the manuscript of the slow movement of the 5th Symphony in 1943 bears this heading from Bunyan: Upon that place there stood a cross and a little below a sepulchre. Then he said, 'He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.'

Yet Vaughan Williams resisted following the path of a T. S. Eliot or a C. S. Lewis. Ursula Vaughan Williams described him spiritually as "an atheist" during his years at Cambridge, then something closer in later years to "a cheerful agnosticism," but "never a professing Christian." When the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed conferring a Lambeth doctorate on him in 1931, he demurred, insisting that "I have no real connection with anything ecclesiastical and no longer count myself a member of the Church of England." He spent four decades assembling the material which would become his greatest stage work, The Pilgrim's Progress, a kind of musical paean to Bunyan and Bunyan's Roundheads (the opera opens with a sonorous declamation of the austere Cromwellian psalm-tune 'York'). And when Rutland Boughton accused him of "redressing an old theology," Vaughan Williams retorted, "it seems to me that some of your ideas are a good deal more moribund than Bunyan's theology."[7] Yet, Vaughan Williams deliberately changed the title character's name from Christian to Pilgrim because "I wanted the idea to be universal and to apply to anybody who aims at the spiritual life, whether he is Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Shintoist or 7th Day Adventist." The Christmas cantata Hodie is actually a mish-mash of texts that include the Gospels, Milton, Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen" (hoping it might be so), and even one of Ursula Vaughan Williams' poems; Dona Nobis Pacem interpolates more poetry by Walt Whitman and words by the Liberal parliamentarian John Bright.[8]

This raises the question of how "a declared agnostic" should have been able (as Ursula Vaughan Williams put it) "all through his life, to set to music words in the accepted terms of Christian revelation as if they meant to him what they must have meant to George Herbert or to Bunyan."[9] Must have meant? How, exactly, does an agnostic capture what the Christian revelation means to its followers without the results reeking of insincerity? This was, in fact, precisely the insincerity Vaughan Williams himself most adamantly condemned:

There is no form of insincerity more subtle than that which is coupled with great earnestness of purpose and determination to do only the best and the highest—this unconscious insincerity which leads us to build up great designs which we cannot fill and to simulate emotions which we can only feel vicariously.[10]

And it leads us to ask what miming of belief leads a man of 85 years to write Introibo ad altarem dei (I will go to the altar of God) over the second part of the fourth movement of his last symphony a few months before his death. Was this passage, as Lionel Pike asks, really Vaughan Williams' testament; or merely a literary flourish designed to co-incide with the second movement's literary subtext, borrowed from Thomas Hardy, of the capture of Tess Durbeyfield at the druid altar in Stonehenge?[11] And what exactly was meant by singling out That lonely tree against the western sky at the close of An Oxford Elegy (1949) as the reason why Despair I will not?

No doubt, Ralph Vaughan Williams' affection for the Anglican liturgy, for the Authorized Version, for Herbert and Bunyan can be written down as no more than his cultural 'Englishness.' Even The Pilgrim's Progress can be dismissed as one last allusion to the open road which he enshrined in the Stevenson lyrics he used in Songs of Travel, but never embraced for himself. Alldritt is unwilling to risk any form of judgment, which is strange in a biography that aims to put the 'life' of Vaughan Williams before the 'music.' Vaughan Williams once commented that "the object of all art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties—of that in fact which is spiritual." Fine, but this is a long way from Evgeny Mravinsky ("Music should be played for God, and not for people") or Masaaki Suzuki ("Calvinism is so practical for evaluating cultural activity in this world").[12] At best, one can say, I think, that Ralph Vaughan Williams enjoyed that 'partial' revelation. But he saw only in part of what he might have seen in full, and not through a glass darkly.

Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. He is the author most recently of Redeeming the Great Emancipator (Harvard Univ. Press).

1. Meirion Hughes, R. A. Stradling, The English Musical Renaissance, 1840-1940: Constructing a National Music (Manchester Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 80-81.

2. Vaughan Williams to Charles Myers (July 1933), in Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1895-1958, ed. Hugh Cobbe (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 234; see A London Symphony, four measures before rehearsal letter G in the first movement.

3. Sophie Fuller, "The Songs and Shorter Secular Choral Works," in The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams, ed. Alain Frogley and Aidan J. Thompson (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), p. 115.

4. Vaughan Williams, "Gustav Holst: An Essay and a Note" and "Bach, the Great Bourgeois," in National Music and Other Essays (Oxford Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 133, 171.

5. See John Bridcut's sensationalist "Sonata for three: How composer Vaughan Williams shared his bedroom with a mistress 40 years his junior … and his wife," Daily Mail (May 20, 2008).

6. John Barr, "RVW and Religion: A Documentary Survey," Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, Vol. 33 (June 2005), p. 2.

7. Eric Seddon, " 'Turn Up My Metaphors and Do Not Fail'; Religious Meaning and Iconography in Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress," Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, Vol. 38 (March 2007), p. 7.

8. Byron Adams, "Scripture, Church and Culture: Biblical Texts in the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams," in Vaughan Williams Studies, Alain Frogley, ed. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), p. 102; Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 2nd ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), p. 313.

9. Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 138.

10. Kennedy, Works, p. 194.

11. Lionel Pike, Vaughan Williams and the Symphony (London: Toccata Press, 2003), p. 332.

12. Michael McManus, "Yevgeny Mravinsky," The Gramophone (March 2016), p. 57; Damian Thomson, "Does the great Bach conductor Masaaki Suzuki think his audience will burn in hell?" The Spectator (March 12, 2016).

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