How A Jovial Atheist Became One Of The 20th Century’s Most Prolific Hymn Writers

ByQuyen Anne

Sep 1, 2023
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote pastoral music during profoundly turbulent times.

Songs of Travel (1901-1904)

(Please note that the above recording only contains the first song of this cycle.)


The opening bars of this song cycle set the inexorable pace of a wanderer’s trek; you can easily imagine a young Vaughan Williams tramping through the countryside in search of traditional tunes and, in fact, these songs coincide with his first forays into folksong collection. But these sensitive settings of Robert Louis Stevenson poems clearly descend from 19th-century European traditions instilled in the composer by two titans of British music, Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.

Aristophanic Suite (Overture and Incidental Music for The Wasps, 1909)


Though this witty music sounds unmistakably English, it also reflects the composer’s three months of intensive study with Maurice Ravel, who commented that among all his pupils, only Vaughan Williams never mimicked his teacher. Vaughan Williams the “pupil” was already an experienced composer when he sought out Ravel, and retained his highly individual voice while absorbing a greater transparency and mastery of instrumental color that would grace every orchestral work that followed.

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, revised 1919)


Vaughan Williams edited The English Hymnal in the first decade of the 20th century, restoring many traditional hymn tunes and chorales to their original shape and planting multiple English folk tunes in its pages. This beloved fantasia draws on a somber, poignant 16th-century psalm setting. The inventive scoring for string quartet and two orchestras, one large and one small, allowed Vaughan Williams to build great swells of sound, evoking Gothic architecture.

Mass in G minor (1922)


The Great War silenced Vaughan Williams. Already in mature middle age, he served as an ambulance driver and was deeply affected by the battlefield scenes he witnessed and the deaths of several friends. He also suffered permanent damage to his hearing. Only in the ’20s did he begin to compose again, and one of his first works of substance was this Mass evoking Renaissance models, which choral enthusiasts rank alongside the finest sacred music of his Tudor-era predecessors, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Symphony No. 4 (1935)

(The Symphony No. 4 begins at 3:15.)


This austere, uncompromising opus surprised and shocked audiences and critics when it appeared during a period of increasing tension across Europe, but Vaughan Williams’ peers, notably William Walton and Malcolm Arnold, immediately discerned its worth. There is no sentiment here, no nostalgia – which is not to say it lacks deep feeling. Its sober, muscular counterpoint perfectly captured the anxious uncertainty of prewar Britain.

Oboe Concerto (1944)

(Please note that the above recording only contains the first movement of this concerto. The oboist is Stephane Rancourt.)


This quirky charmer dates from the closing years of World War II and, below its genial surface, holds a lingering sense of unrest mixed with humor and hope. Well into his 70s, Vaughan Williams was still exploring new formal and harmonic possibilities. This concerto’s structure is unorthodox: A leisurely opening pastorale, laced with solo cadenzas, leads to a brief dance interlude, followed by a virtuosic final scherzo. There is no central slow movement, and almost no rest for the oboist, either.

Three Shakespeare Songs (1951)


A trio of magical, incantatory poems from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream prompted these fantastical, impressionistic miniatures. Their mercurial harmonic shifts and verbal effects require flawless tuning and diction from the singers to achieve their full effect.

Old 100th Psalm Tune (1953)


To celebrate Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday, Richard Bratby speaks to some of today’s most prominent British composers to discover how his legacy continues to bear fruit in the most unlikely of places

Vaughan Williams: an influential advocate of amateur and community music-making (photo: Bridgeman Images)
Vaughan Williams: an influential advocate of amateur and community music-making (photo: Bridgeman Images)

Can you remember when you first became aware of the music of Vaughan Williams? Cheryl Frances-Hoad was eight years old and in her first year at the Menuhin School. ‘We played the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis every two years. We played it over and over. I arrived there as a cellist, and at first I was the last cello in the big orchestra, and then I led the upper orchestra, and then finally I led the main orchestra. I grew up with that piece.’

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James MacMillan’s experience was different, but the effect was no less enduring. ‘Linden Lea – we sang it at school. But I also remember playing second trumpet in a student performance of the Serenade to Music – being right there at the core of something quite magical and truly beautiful. We were young players and young voices, but we made a really good stab at it.’

In suburban Essex, the teenage Mark-Anthony Turnage wasn’t playing but listening: ‘I grew up with Vaughan Williams. I remember having an Adrian Boult box-set of the symphonies – it had a blue cover, with a bust of the composer. And that really stuck with me. I was very aware of this music, from my early teens onwards. I grew up with it. I loved it.’

RVW –  in his customary three-piece heavy tweed, as remembered by Nicola LeFanu – conducting at the Abinger Pageant, Dorking, Surrey (photo: Courtesy of Dorking Museum)

And when it comes to Nicola LeFanu – well, the parameters were rather different. LeFanu’s mother, the composer Dame Elizabeth Maconchy, was one of Vaughan Williams’s composition students in the 1920s. LeFanu’s earliest musical memories are permeated in the artistic idealism and the huge, benign presence of the man her mother called ‘Uncle Ralph’. ‘I was eight or nine. My memory is of a very large man with a very handsome face. I remember being surprised that when he and Ursula visited my parents in the country he was wearing a three-piece heavy tweed suit. I thought that was extraordinary, on a hot summer day. He was rather an Edwardian character. But he had such a sympathetic face. He was good to children and he loved cats: that was a great plus with me!’ When Vaughan Williams died in 1958, LeFanu’s school halted lessons to listen to the broadcast of his funeral. ‘It was my first term at secondary school, and I think they knew how close my mother was to him.’

Although it’s hard to top that (we can’t all receive house calls from our heroes), a common theme is already emerging: for each of these four living composers, Vaughan Williams’s music has been a presence since childhood – not because it was pushed upon them in lectures or textbooks, but through the unforced, natural process of making and listening to music. MacMillan in his Ayrshire state school, Turnage in his Essex bedroom, Frances-Hoad with her first cello – right from the outset, Vaughan Williams was simply there as something to be played, to be sung, and to be enjoyed.

So far, so normal. If you’ve been involved in music in the UK since the Second World War, you’ll probably have a similar story to tell. For me, it’s playing the English Folk Song Suite in a junior wind band, or perhaps the hymn For all the saints, whose Sine nomine tune was composed by Vaughan Williams, sung in a school assembly decades before I encountered its closing ‘alleluia’ in the Fifth Symphony, and realised that, for the composer, the melody we’d murdered to upright piano accompaniment could also light the path to the Celestial City. Vaughan Williams’s music was just naturally present: not (in Elgar’s words) in the air, exactly, but in the ears, under the fingers and on the lips of our musical friends and neighbours. It was alive, it was being used. It didn’t need explaining.

Vaughan Williams’s music was just naturally present: not (in Elgar’s words) in the air, exactly, but in the ears, under the fingers and on the lips of our musical friends and neighbours

Still, it’s reasonable to assume that a professional composer might give rather more thought to the matter, even if their own music has taken a very different path. Few casual listeners would perceive a direct line between Vaughan Williams and the sound world of Elizabeth Maconchy – still less that of Nicola LeFanu. ‘What my mother told me was that he was a very inspiring teacher, but not a conventional one,’ says LeFanu. ‘He didn’t follow any kind of system. Technique, of course, has to be a means to an end, but he was very hostile to what he called “brilliance”. He referred to Stravinsky’s “monkey tricks”, and told my mother that she mustn’t fall for them. Her music is not like his, because she was interested in Bartók and Berg, and other composers that Vaughan Williams didn’t care for. He certainly didn’t care for Stravinsky and Berg. And yet Ursula Vaughan Williams said to me that my mother was RVW’s favourite pupil. He was always extremely supportive of her, throughout her career. So the fact that her music was different must have been something that he respected. When she first went to study with him, she said it was like a light turning on. He had the effect of making his pupils write better music than they would have if they hadn’t been studying with him.’

It rings true. Vaughan Williams, remembering his own studies with Stanford, observed that ‘a broad-minded teacher is useless’, but his own teaching seems to have been deeply tolerant. He liked to quote the classicist Gilbert Murray: ‘The genius may be a rebel against tradition, but at the same time he is a child of it.’ When the young Turnage burst on to the music scene in the late 1980s with scores like Three Screaming Popes and Greek, he was promoted as classical music’s cockney rebel: a bovver-booted anarchist spraying raucous sonic graffiti across the strife-torn musical landscape of Thatcher’s Britain. That he was a closet Vaughan Williams fan would have seemed inconceivable.

A reputation problem?

‘My teacher Oliver Knussen didn’t really like Vaughan Williams,’ recalls Turnage. ‘He loved Britten and he loved Elgar, but I think he only respected Vaughan Williams, though I remember him saying that he thought the Fourth Symphony was great.’ (Along with the Tallis Fantasia, the central trilogy of symphonies is singled out for its significance by Turnage, LeFanu and MacMillan alike.)

‘But I was a fan,’ Turnage continues. ‘I did a BBC Radio 3 thing once in my late twenties with Anthony Payne – an evening of Vaughan Williams. I think everyone thought I was going to be negative, but I just agreed with everything Anthony said.’ In the 1990s, Turnage befriended Roy Douglas, Vaughan Williams’s former amanuensis, and visited him at his home in Tunbridge Wells. ‘He didn’t really like my music, which is fine. So I used to spend afternoons with him just talking about VW.’

Roy Douglas and Vaughan Williams in 1953 (photo: Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In some quarters, of course, Vaughan Williams still has a reputation problem. The rise of The Lark Ascending to the top of the annual Classic FM listeners’ poll has cemented the prejudices of commentators who are unable to distinguish popularity from populism and who, paradoxically, regard the Berlin- and Paris-trained Vaughan Williams as the embodiment of a supposed parochialism in British music. There’s long been a tendency to find Uncle Ralph profoundly uncool. MacMillan was aware of the stigma: ‘When I was younger, the orthodoxy was that young, cutting-edge composers wouldn’t be interested in these old-fashioned English composers. There were disparaging terms like cowpat music – I heard that all the way through university. And then I realised that, not just in my music, but in the music of many British composers, the music of Vaughan Williams and others of that deeply disparaged period was still making its mark. It made me think that there’s something about this music that is not just inescapable to us as modern British composers, but which is actually much more radical and potent and interesting than we’d ever been told.’

Turnage agrees: ‘It fascinates me, this idea that Vaughan Williams was amateurish, because it’s just rubbish. It came from Elisabeth Lutyens who in my view was pretty much an amateur herself. Vaughan Williams has got this great technique. He can orchestrate harmonically, and his string writing is just extraordinary. Think how much the Tallis Fantasia has influenced British string writing. Purely technically, it’s amazing what he does in that piece, where he goes with it. I also have this great fondness for him as a figure. All this nationalistic stuff – his popularity with Brexiteers – is just nonsense, because he was clearly a socialist. His music is for the people.’

None of which means, of course, that Turnage and his colleagues aspire to write scores that sound like Vaughan Williams. The composer (whose teacher Ravel noted with delight that he ‘n’écrit pas de ma musique’) would have been horrified at the prospect. How many artists, looking to posterity, would set up a trust to support young composers and then forbid it, as Vaughan Williams did, from promoting its own music? Vaughan Williams left no Aldeburgh-style personality cult, and our four composers wear his stylistic influence lightly, if at all. LeFanu mentions a song that she composed while at school: ‘It had a low C pedal and shifting chorus above it, which I’m sure was influenced by the fact that I was studying the Fifth Symphony.’

‘That deep melancholic tread you find in Vaughan Williams is very much present in Birtwistle’s music’ – James MacMillan

MacMillan identifies the string threnodies in The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) ‘which probably subconsciously have come from the world of the Tallis Fantasia’. He mentions another RVW fan, the late Harrison Birtwistle. ‘That deep melancholic tread that you find in a lot of Vaughan Williams is very much present in Birtwistle’s music. You can hear the English countryside, you can hear the English soul in that music in ways that perhaps go beyond the consciousness of the composer himself.’

Turnage is reminded of another artistic hero: ‘With certain harmonic things in the Fifth Symphony, you can sort of see where Tippett’s Second comes from. You can hear that melancholia, which is of course an English thing that I really tap into. But it’s not just an English thing, it’s something deeper than that.’

A lasting legacy

For each of these composers, Vaughan Williams’s true legacy extends beyond the notes on the page. In 2015, Frances-Hoad completed a choral work, From the Beginning of the World, based upon the same third mode melody around which Vaughan Williams constructed his Tallis Fantasia. The result is strikingly individual. ‘Communicating to an audience is very, very important to me,’ she says. As a teenager, her first orchestral commission was a Vaughan Williams-inspired work for an amateur orchestra in Surrey. The score has long since been lost, but the impact of working with amateurs was profound. ‘Until that point, for me, Vaughan Williams would have just been a composer who wrote fantastic string orchestra music. But then I learnt about his involvement in the community – possibly the first time I would have really been aware of that kind of music-making.’

Two themes are emerging, and seem to be enduring. One is Vaughan Williams’s fascination with a common musical heritage – particularly folk music and early music – not as a retreat to an idealised past, but as a path to the future. Ask MacMillan about his own Fourth Symphony (which draws on the music of the Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver in much the way that Vaughan Williams draws on Tallis) and he’s quick to point out that he’s not alone. ‘Peter Maxwell Davies loved Gregorian chant. He kept the Liber usualis on his desk, and he was continually delving into it. And, of course, Birtwistle is full of references to medieval music. Vaughan Williams showed the way: he opened up the modern musical mind to an understanding and respect for the deep past.’

Secondly, there’s that engagement with amateur and community music-making – an aspect of his art that Vaughan Williams, like his successors Britten, Tippett and Maxwell Davies, treated with the utmost seriousness. If there’s anything peculiarly British – or peculiar to the anglophone world, at any rate – about Vaughan Williams’s achievement, it might be that belief in musical democracy. ‘He had such a commitment to music-making for everybody,’ says LeFanu. ‘And the fact that this extended from children and amateurs up to the most starry professionals was a real aspiration for me. This was something that did not happen on the Continent at all: you don’t find French and Italian composers doing this. It set a pattern which I think was very important. Some composers are extremely egocentric, and Vaughan Williams wasn’t.’

MacMillan couldn’t agree more: ‘I remember having a discussion with a Dutch composer and it was quite clear that he saw writing for amateurs as beneath him. He was unashamedly saying that to write for amateurs was not a priority, whereas I think we’ve got to make it a priority. I’m writing just now for a youth orchestra, and I don’t in any way see it as inferior to what I was writing for The Sixteen or the Hallé recently. Writing music that teenagers can sing and play is one of the best things a composer can do.’

He continues: ‘Perhaps there is something in the make-up of the British composer, especially, that has to draw sustenance from within ordinary communities – amateur choruses and bands in mining areas, workers’ unions, schools. Some of Britten’s great masterpieces were written for children. And all that began with the likes of Vaughan Williams. It’s almost as if that’s the way that British music works – that there’s a deep ecology, where the masterpieces of the composers we’ve been talking about would not have happened if they hadn’t come from the roots.’

Public service

Perhaps that is the key to Vaughan Williams’s continuing significance to his fellow composers, three generations after his death. The symphonies, the hymns, the choral music, the film scores and all the rest of that big, generous body of work is still there to rediscover and enjoy. And there’s encouragement for Gramophone readers too: Vaughan Williams was clear that engaged and responsive listening was as much a part of music-making as composing or performing. But for today’s composers, he did more than create inspiring (or inimitable) sounds. ‘The greatest artist belongs inevitably to his country as much as the humblest singer in a remote village,’ wrote Vaughan Williams. ‘They and all those who come between them are links in the same chain, manifestations on their different levels of the same desire for artistic expression, and, moreoever, the same nature of artistic expression.’ He dug deep, and laid foundations without prescribing what should be built upon them – only that the builders should be true to themselves and their art.

‘I never thought of him as nostalgic, or romantic, or anything like that,’ says LeFanu. ‘I thought of him as an active, early 20th-century composer, redefining what a symphony might mean in this country. I think the fact that he had a very strong belief in public service – that the composer had a role to play in society – was certainly important to my generation.’

For Turnage, in the end, the man, the music and the legacy are indivisible. ‘I would’ve loved to have met him. Ursula said that he was a really kind person. OK, that doesn’t necessarily make you a great composer, but I do think he is great. I think that his music is lasting: there are more and more recordings and performances. It’s being played. And the older I get, the more I think, “Yeah. This is something that is going to stand the test of time.”’

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