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Allen C. Guelzo

A Vaughan Williams Elegy

"Cheerful agnosticism"?

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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]

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