Allen C. Guelzo

A Vaughan Williams Elegy

"Cheerful agnosticism"?

5 of 6view all

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.

icon5 of 6view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide