The composer often known for convenience just as RVW (the main title of his widow’s biography of him) was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney on the 12th of October 1872. He never got to know the village, for his father, the local vicar, died when he was two and the family returned to his mother’s home, Leith Hill Place in the Surrey hills, near Dorking. His immediate ancestors on his mother’s side were Wedgwoods and Darwins, so there was every reason to expect young Ralph to do something spectacular, yet there were few early signs that he was to become one of the great symphonists of the twentieth century. In fact, his family insisted that church organist was the only respectable job for a musician, and he spent four to five years at St. Barnabas, South Lambeth, where he claimed that the louts in the choir drove him mad. An outspoken atheist (who mellowed with the passing years), he refused to take communion, which did not please everybody.
After school at Charterhouse, Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge University, finally earning his Cambridge doctorate around the turn of the century, when he turned to a life as a composer, supplementing a small family income with earnings from writing, teaching, and adjudicating at the many musical competitions that were an important part of people’s lives in that era. But recognition came slowly, and this article documents that first decade.
It is currently my privilege to run The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society’s recording subsidiary Albion Records, and we have recorded many previously unknown works. Inevitably, a lot of these have been ‘early’ pieces, reaching back into the composer’s student days. Here I should like to concentrate on newspaper reports, since the critical reception often conveys a sense of Vaughan Williams’ struggle to establish himself, with ‘two steps forward and one back.’
There are some interesting newspaper reports from the nineteenth century: for instance the South London Press reports that “Mr R. Vaughan Williams ably directed” the St. Barnabas Choral and Orchestral Society’s concert in May 1899, and notes that it was good to see his friend and contemporary composer Nicholas Gatty accompanying the choir and performers. However, the first encounter with a work by RVW comes in March 1901 with praise from both The Globe and The Times for the Heroic Elegy, the latter describing his writing as “broad, dignified and original.” The composer was later to suppress this piece, like many of his early works, but an excellent recording is now available, conducted by John Wilson on Dutton Epoch.
Things started and continued well, with praise from many quarters for the Serenade in A minor and a Quintet in D. November 1902 saw the London premiere of the unpronounceable Blackmwore by the Stour, a companion piece for the much-loved Linden Lea. However, it did not really leave its mark --The Globe and The Guardian made passing favourable mentions of its performance, but reviews of the concert in the London Daily News and Evening Standard focussed instead on what sounds like a rather stodgy song cycle by the pianist, Mr C. A. Lidgey. Then as now, musicians had their followers, so that certain names repeatedly come up in connection with the young composer’s work. The baritone James Campbell McInnes (1874-1945) was a good friend and premiered a number of RVW’s works, and so did the bass-baritone [Jack] Francis Harford (1867-1948). Both actively promoted the works of young composers and fed the constant need of the press for ‘novelties’ —which, in that era, just meant new pieces, rather than unusual compositions.
While RVW’s output was sometimes disregarded by the press early on, soon his works were singled out of mixed bags of ‘novelties’ for special comment. In February 1903, Sovereign ventured some criticism: “Mr Francis Harford introduced several new songs at his recital last week. ‘Tears, Idle Tears,’ by Dr. Vaughan Williams. Many composers have set these well-known words from Tennyson’s ‘Princess,’ but few have been successful with them. The fact is, the words in themselves are so musical that they speak for themselves, and require no embroidery. But, in addition to this, there is a peculiar atmosphere about them that makes it difficult for a musician to interpret them. As a well-known composer said, when asked to set them, ‘I cannot; they are too thought-heavy.’ Dr. Vaughan Williams has succeeded in writing an artistic setting of the words, but one that has the fault of most modern songs, namely, more attention paid to the instrumental than the vocal part of the song.”
In March 1903, more serious resistance was encountered. Silent Noon was premiered by Mr. Harford on the 10th of March. This setting of a sonnet by D. G. Rossetti is one of RVW’s most beautiful works, and it was quite properly acclaimed in all fifteen of the press reports that I have discovered so far (some of them in the composer’s own scrapbook). Two days later, Mr McInnes gave the first performance of the cantata Willow-Wood, a setting of four more of Rossetti’s sonnets. Its mixed reception is perhaps best summed up by The Times:
“Of Dr. Vaughan Williams's sonnet cycle it is not easy to express more than a vague opinion on one hearing. It may be that Rossetti's sonnets do not precisely call for a musical setting -- yet here we have Dr. Vaughan Williams giving us, in his setting, passages of the rarest beauty — for instance, that beginning ‘Only I know that I leaned low.’ On the other hand, there are passages where the music seems almost turgid, while its complexities and its breadth of colour seem to demand an orchestral medium, not a mere pianoforte, for their due presentment. Yet, in spite of this, the resulting impression left on one's mind after hearing the whole is that the beauty and significance prevailed. Of these songs a most dignified, earnest, and sincere performance was given, such as the music, which is itself dignified, earnest, and sincerely poetical, demanded, by Mr. Campbell McInnes and Mr. Howard Jones.”
RVW went on to orchestrate this work, but it never became popular. Happily, Roderick Williams has recorded it for Naxos, so that we can form our own opinion.
October 1904 saw the first performance of two duets, settings of Whitman — one of which, The Last Invocation, has become a personal favourite of mine since the release of our album Purer than Pearl. But the Berkshire Chronicle wrote: “The other principal feature of the programme were five vocal duets by Miss Beatrice Spencer and Mr Foxton Ferguson. These included two, with accompaniment of piano and string quartette, sung for the first time in public, the composer, Dr. R. Vaughan Williams being present to hear the venture — ‘The Bird’s Love Song’ for choice before the ‘Last Invocation,’ but neither struck us as particularly happy, and are scarcely likely to become very popular.”
These pieces were repeated at the major event that RVW put on at his own expense at Bechstein Hall (now Wigmore Hall) in December. Holst and Hamilton Harty were there as accompanists for new works by both Holst and Vaughan Williams. The duets had their third (and possibly last) performance; The Globe thought that they were charming, but The Times suggested that “the composer’s usual skill in vocal writing is less apparent than elsewhere.” The Songs of Travel and The House of Life song cycles were also performed for the first time. Everybody liked the former, and we have been humming along to it ever since. The House of Life (sonnets again, including the wonderful Silent Noon) was a different affair; while The Times liked it, a number of papers, such as the Evening Standard, thought sonnets simply unsuitable for a musical setting: “In some of these, notably the one commencing ‘Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,’ the composer rises to great heights of poetic expression; but unfortunately these do not last. The sonnet-form is a difficult one for musical setting, and should be approached with caution; for this reason it is, perhaps, regrettable that some of the finest poetry in the language has been written in this form.”
Unlike the duets, The House of Life survived. It has never enjoyed the popularity of its companion cycle, Songs of Travel. In 1928 a singer, Mr Kelson, tried to explain this to the Reading Standard: “The main reason why this particular cycle is so rarely heard is that the songs are so difficult to understand that they practically have no meaning except to the extremely ‘advanced’ intellect.” Well, perhaps you had better make up your own (extremely advanced) mind about that. My own happy observation from the 1904 press cuttings is that the premiere was given by Edith Clegg, whereas all the recordings since then have been made by chaps —so it was a treat to record the mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately singing it (rather wonderfully) for Albion’s album The Song of Love.
1905 brought fewer new works; two French songs (which, of course, Albion has recorded) received favourable if passing notice from one or two papers, though most reviews ignored the works and focussed on the singer, Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936), another Vaughan Williams supporter. In December the Quintet in C was well-received, in spite of what The Guardian described as “Wagnerian Reminiscences.”
The big news for 1905 was Pan’s Anniversary, a Ben Jonson masque performed just once in Stratford-upon-Avon. Music was commissioned from Vaughan Williams in such a hurry that he had to ask Holst to orchestrate some dances, but he himself still produced some new and original music, particularly the four great ‘Hymns to Pan.’ The House of Life cycle had featured the distinctive descending arpeggio that also begins Vaughan Williams’s great hymn For All the Saints. In Pan we hear a further development of the tune, which finally emerged complete in 1906’s The English Hymnal. (It has been a four-year labour of love to make a recording of Pan’s Anniversary, which we released earlier this year.)
1906 was full of new works. First, The English Hymnal, which inspired acres of print, and outright condemnation from the Archbishop of Canterbury. In true English style, a compromise was reached: a new and slightly expurgated edition was published in 1907, but the old one continued to be printed and the expurgated version was quietly forgotten. If you find a copy today, hang on to it: it’s a rarity.
In that year Vaughan Williams wrote his first music for a play based on The Pilgrim’s Progress, and elements of that work were to find their way into the finished opera in 1951. The first Norfolk Rhapsody, based on folk tunes, premiered at a Prom concert and was met with enthusiasm. For decades afterwards, newspapers would often describe RVW as a writer of music based on folk tunes, and he must have come slightly to regret or even resent that label as his music broadened.
1907 brought two more Norfolk Rhapsodies (number two was suppressed and number three destroyed altogether by its composer). In November, The Westminster Gazette wrote: “Wanting in spontaneity also were the two Orchestral Impressions Harnham Down and Boldre Wood of Mr. R. Vaughan Williams—works intended apparently as a species of musical eclogue, but much too sophisticated in character to be regarded as a satisfactory fulfilment of this purpose. The composer handles his slender means with exceeding delicacy and reticence certainly, and there is a pleasant Charfreitagszauber-like feeling about the first piece of the pair, but each suggests the study rather than the open air, to which it may be added that the second, described as being in the nature of a Scherzo, is far too long-drawn-out.” (Albion revived Harnham Down on our Grammy-nominated disc The Solent, but the score of Boldre Wood was sadly lost or destroyed.)
1907 also had bigger and better news, with first performances in Leeds and then London of a major setting of Walt Whitman: Toward the Unknown Region. Newspaper coverage was copious, extending even to the rehearsals. The Times noted that “The composition is easily ahead of anything the young composer has yet given us, and here we see the perfect maturity of his genius, the art that conceals art most effectually, and a nobility and earnestness of invention which mark the composer as the foremost of the younger generation.” Although some earlier, smaller-scale works have remained popular — Linden Lea, Silent Noon, the Songs of Travel — it is this work that marks the breakthrough, the moment when Vaughan Williams began to be recognised as a great composer. RVW was already working on a symphony at that time, so 1908 brought only a (probable) first performance of the song Buonaparty (another Albion recording!) As a result, 1909 was a very full year. In February, The Times wrote: “For novelty we had Mr. R. Vaughan Williams's Symphonic Impression In the Fen Country, a purposely vague, atmospheric, yet picturesque, work, beautifully scored and superbly wrought, that, from the point of view of technique as well as invention of thematic material, stands on a higher plane than any previous composition from the same pen.” In the Fen Country is not based on folk song, but it sounds as though it could have been; while it is simplistic to talk vaguely about modality, it is fair to say that Vaughan Williams had absorbed folk song to such an extent that it had ceased to be a distinctive musical idiom and became part of his own style. He would never abandon the explicit referencing of folk song, which he continued throughout his career, but the subconscious influence was always there.
Disaster struck in November 1909 with first performances of a String Quartet in G minor and On Wenlock Edge, a setting of poems by Housman. The poet hated musical settings of his work, especially those by RVW, and the press reviews were very mixed. The Times and others praised the song cycle, in which the tenor Gervase Elwes sang wonderfully despite suffering from laryngitis. However, The Globe was somewhat horrified: “Hitherto Dr. Vaughan Williams has been chiefly known as a most skilful composer whose enthusiasm for our national folk-songs has given a pleasantly English tinge to his music. If we may judge, however, from the quartet and the song-cycle which were produced at the concert which he gave in conjunction with Mr. Gervase Elwes at the Aeolian Hall last night, it would appear that he has, to some extent at any rate, deserted his early love. Nowadays modern France seems chiefly to engage his attention, but not entirely, for in both of these works we find an attempt to express English thoughts in the language of Debussy and Ravel. Upon the whole, it is impossible to feel that his new departure is an entire success. In the old days, his music had a flavour of its own which was peculiarly pleasing. To-day it is of a somewhat nondescript nature, and though here and there his own individuality peeps out, he seems to have been at some pains to repress it, and to merge it in that of the modern French writers.” While acknowledging that the enormous audience called Vaughan Williams back several times during the course of the evening, The Telegraph also considered the Quartet to be a poor imitation of Debussy; the song cycle’s accompaniments were frequently admirable but “the vocal phrases were as often uncouth and somewhat misshapen.”
The Westminster Gazette condemned both works: “it would be hard to say which was the less satisfactory. Throughout one derived the impression of a composer striving to be original at all costs, and failing rather dismally.” The London Daily News also gave a general thumbs down, but liked two of the songs. The Observer, in a brief notice, was more positive, noting that the works show “those lines of distinct thought that mark him as one of the most individual of the English group of composers.” Michael Kennedy, the composer’s friend and musical biographer, thought that the public was just not ready for a new direction at that time. There is, perhaps, evidence of this in the fate of the Quartet, which disappeared from sight, but ruffled no feathers when it was reintroduced in 1922.
On Wenlock Edge seems such a fixture today that is difficult to imagine how close it came to failure. The second performance in the following year attracted equally mixed reviews, after which all went quiet for a while. What happened next is somewhat unusual. The singer Gervase Elwes picked up the song cycle from about 1912 and performed it repeatedly around the country with the London String Quartet (under leader Albert Sammons). This continued throughout the First World War, until by 1919 The Sunday Times was able to say: “On Wenlock Edge, with Mr Gervase Elwes as soloist and Mr Kiddle at the piano, was as welcome as an old friend.” Thus Gervase Elwes single-handedly made On Wenlock Edge popular, so that it did not need to be rescued in the twenty-first century by Albion Records.
Despite that successful effort, widely acknowledged in the press, there was still opposition –- in particular from Mr Ernest Newman, at various times music critic for The Birmingham Daily Post and The Sunday Times. In 1918 he wrote of it:
“Dr. Vaughan Williams’s cycle is a laudable attempt to find the musical equivalent of six of the poems, but one cannot honestly say more for it than that. The two crucial things are Is My Team Ploughing? and the famous Bredon Hill; and in both Dr. Vaughan Williams has failed miserably. His failure is typical of the whole failure of British music in the song. He resorts to the dramatic and the rhetorical where all that is wanted is lyricism pure and simple; but drama and rhetoric are easier than the lyric. His music spreads itself out far too much for the poetry, and calls too much on the mere fuss and flurry of passion for its aid. … Yet while declining to admit that Dr. Vaughan Williams has given us the final music to the poems, it would be ungracious not to recognise an admirable touch in them here and there, even if his music on the whole merely associates with them rather than makes a predestined marriage with them.” Still fulminating about On Wenlock Edge, Newman took a pasting from Edwin Evans in the pages of The Musical Times in 1918. Unrepentant, he went on to describe it for the Observer in 1919 as “in large measure only sham British art, the stolid attempt of an essentially unimaginative man to be English by an effort of the reason.”
So we move nervously on to 1910 (when this story must largely come to its end) with two major premieres: the Tallis Fantasia at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in September and A Sea Symphony the next month in Leeds Town Hall. The Tallis Fantasia drew generally good reviews, and had a profound effect on many who heard it. Not everybody was satisfied, however. The London Evening Standard said: “The medieval nature of the theme does not lend itself to much variety of treatment, but the composer is successful in maintaining its character by the cold, grey tint of his harmonic scheme. To the uninitiated the work doubtless seems monotonous, but the musician will recognise it as an ingenious piece of writing. It has, however, little musical interest beyond its scholarship.” To be fair, the work was about two-and-a-half minutes longer than it is now — Vaughan Williams usually tightened his compositions in revision.
Ernest Newman was there but offered little by way of opinion on the grounds that he had not seen the score. We need not take issue with this, since it was rather characteristic, but another newspaper criticised him roundly for it. (However, Newman’s main provocation was his rudeness about the Three Choirs Festival as a whole, which inflamed Gloucester sensibilities.) Generally, I think we can agree with The Times (probably J. A. Fuller Maitland) who wrote that “the work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown region of musical thought and feeling.”
The Sea Symphony, in October, generated its own sea of print. The impact is difficult to summarise. The better articles were analytical; some complained about its great length; the Standard suggested that the composer’s reputation was considerably advanced by it; the Guardian thought it “much the finest piece of sea music that we, a seafaring folk above everything, possess”; the Glasgow Herald thought it over-scored; and the overall feeling was best conveyed, once again, by The Times:
“A feeling is created that the composer's invention is so little exhausted at the end that he might well lead us on to further and further climaxes, and the first impression we receive from the work is that poet and musician are marvellously akin. In both there is the distaste for the old-established forms, both are striving for the newer poetic life; and in the ferment there must be some refuse thrown off, some ungainliness of verbal phrase or musical progression. But there is no denying the presence of great imaginative poetry in one and the other.” Was there a dissenting voice? Ernest Newman had this to say:
“It is a work of honest intention, but not of much success in the achievement, though there is some fine writing here and there. Whitman's words are perhaps not sufficiently varied in scope for a musical treatment. This may account in part for the failure of the composer to hold our interest all the while. But it is his imagination that is chiefly at fault. In Mr. Delius’s wonderful setting of Whitman's ‘Sea Drift,’ the whole colour and sound and surge and mystery of the sea are caught at once by an intuition of genius. Only the big men see their subjects in a flash with this swift synthetic imagination. Dr. Vaughan Williams’s mind does not work at this white heat. He builds with the reason, slowly piecing his picture together, bit by bit, out of remembered emotions of his own, and what he has read of other men's emotions about the sea. So the canvas is alive only in patches, with great tracts of conscious and laboured mechanism between. For another thing, he has not yet developed a musical idiom flexible enough for a subject like this.”
Is it fair to give Newman (remembered today for his great biography of Wagner, but perhaps not so much respected as a critic) the last word? In a sense it is, for Vaughan Williams was never to be free of negative press. Each new major work took him in a new direction —he never repeated himself— so press and public alike were often caught out by something unexpected. This applies not only to the symphonies, now part of the bedrock of our musical world, but also to stage works and concertos which have not enjoyed the same measure of success. It is easy for us to apply our hindsight to critics who ‘got it wrong,’ but even those whose adverse opinions have not stood the test of time perhaps had some insights to share with us.
Was Vaughan Williams troubled by the mixture of good and bad press? He famously remarked in 1958 that “In the next life, I shan’t be doing music, with all its strivings and disappointments; I shall be being it.” No doubt the press brought their fair share of disappointments, but the major ones must have been the compositions that were never heard. Today we are delighted by his many stage works, but if they had been more celebrated in his lifetime there would certainly have been more of them. Yet he soldiered on, driven not by any desire for fame or fortune, but by his great art.
In this 150th birthday year we can celebrate not just the symphonies and the popular works, such as the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending, but also the operas, songs, concertos, folk song arrangements, and many works written for special occasions, all of which deserve further hearings.
I leave the last words to Herbert Howells in 1958: “Our graceful passion it is to create ‘national figures.’ These are such as can touch the heart of millions. Churchill, Elgar and Vaughan Williams are of the elect. And somewhere they must reconcile genius to humility. On the eve of his seventy-fifth birthday V. W. sat with me. He was reflecting upon his age. Unforgettably, he declared that fortune had been kind to him, adding, ‘I ask one more gift—the gift of Time In which to glean my mind and justify my existence.’ Under Providence his wish was granted. The fruits of that gleaning are a part of history.”--John Francis
John Francis is the treasurer of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society and the president of Albion Records, which has made first recordings of more than 170 works by Vaughan Williams. Full listings (often with links to ‘taster’ videos) can be found at www.rvwsociety.com/albionrecords.