Ralph Vaughan Williams


Romantic/20th Century

Ralph Vaughan Williams was a man who believed that everybody, no matter how young or old or rich or poor, should have access to great music. Throughout his life, he helped this to happen.

He was born near the city of Gloucester in England. When he was five he began piano lessons with his aunt. He had talent, and he soon composed his first music – a tiny little piece called The Robin’s Nest. Later he was taught at London’s Royal College of Music by the composers Parry and Stanford. He thought Parry was brilliant, but he found Stanford a boring stick-in-the-mud and argued with him all the time! He had modern ideas and he was determined to develop them.

While there he made friends with Gustav Holst – composer of The Planets. All through their lives, the two men would chat about music and play their latest compositions to each other. When Holst died, Vaughan Williams was devastated.

At the beginning of the 1900s Vaughan Williams travelled round England collecting folksongs. This was really important! They had never been written down before. Singers would sing them, and Vaughan Williams, listening carefully, would put them onto paper in musical notation. The songs were saved forever, for anyone to sing. He collected over 800 in total, and he used some of them in his own compositions. He wrote well-known hymns, such as For all the saints and Come down, O love Divine.

In the First World War he volunteered to serve in the Field Ambulance Service in Flanders. The work was tough, and he was very upset when several of his friends died. He never forgot this sadness.

He taught composition at the Royal College of Music for many years. After he died his ashes were placed in Westminster Abbey, near to those of Purcell (who had died 250 years earlier). He had written nine symphonies, five operas, film music, ballet and stage music, several song-cycles, church music and works for chorus and orchestra. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, The Lark Ascending and A Sea Symphony are among his most famous works.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Listen to some pieces by Vaughan Williams…

The Lark Ascending

This shows Vaughan Williams’s love of folksong and of the violin. It describes the English countryside, and the flight of a bird called a skylark. In the closing bars, as the solo violin returns to the ascending phrases with which the work began, the lark’s song dies away.

Performers: David Greed, violin; English Northern Philharmonia; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.553955

Fantasia on Greensleeves (arr. Ralph Greaves)

This uses the traditional melody ‘Greensleeves’ and was part of an opera by Vaughan Williams called Sir John in Love, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The version we usually hear today for harp and string instruments was put together by Ralph Greaves, with the composer’s permission.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.555867

Linden Lea

Linden Lea is one of the best-known songs that Vaughan Williams wrote. There is a gentle folksong lilt to the music, and the words are all about the English countryside.

Performers: Roderick Williams, baritone; Iain Burnside, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557643

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which orchestral instrument did Vaughan Williams play?

a. Tuba
b. Timpani
c. Viola

 How many symphonies did Vaughan Williams write?

a. Eleven
b. Nine
c. None

 In which country did Vaughan Williams live?

a. England
b. France
c. United States of America

 Who did Vaughan Williams make good friends with at the Royal College of Music?

a. Gustav Holst
b. Maurice Ravel
c. J.S. Bach

 What did Vaughan Williams collect?

a. Stamps
b. Folksongs
c. Precious stones

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Vaughan Williams played the piano, organ, violin and viola.
  2. Vaughan Williams married his second wife Ursula when he was 80 and she was 41 – they had met 14 years earlier and fallen in love, and she encouraged him in his composing.
  3. Charles Darwin (well-known English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his theory of evolution) was Vaughan Williams’s great uncle.
  4. Vaughan Williams collected over 800 folksongs from around England.
  5. Vaughan Williams spent three months in Paris and studied with the composer Maurice Ravel.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!


Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus

‘Dives and Lazarus’ is an old English folk-tune that has appeared in different versions. Using this like a little seed, Vaughan Williams grows a lovely tree that spreads out its branches! He weaves a magical sound-world with a string orchestra (a group containing violins, violas, cellos and double basses) and a harp. The best way to enjoy it is to close your eyes, and listen to the instruments swimming around with this very English tune.

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.557798

English Folk Song Suite

Vaughan Williams collected hundreds of English folksongs, and he loved using them in his music. You can hear in this piece how comfortable he felt in playing with them, mixing them together and giving them new life. When Vaughan Williams wrote this in 1923, he called it ‘Folk Song Suite’ and it was for military band. The following year, his pupil Gordon Jacob made a version for orchestra, and added ‘English’ to the title. It is a popular work, and typical of Vaughan Williams’s ‘pastoral’ style – the one that seems to paint the gentle English countryside, with green hills and little paths.

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.572304

Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor

This lovely orchestral piece combines two of Vaughan Williams’s loves: folksong and the viola. It uses two folksongs; and the solo viola – deep-throated and soulful – can be heard first at 1.02 singing the tune. It sounds free, almost as if it’s making it up as it goes along. Vaughan Williams wanted it like that, and the sense of freedom helps to create the feeling of open space that spreads across the whole piece. Norfolk is a county in England, where Vaughan Williams collected many of his folksongs. The first song used here is ‘The Captain’s Apprentice’. At 5.29, things are more lively, using the songs ‘The Basket of Eggs’ and ‘A Bold Young Sailor’.

Performers: Stuart Green, viola; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Paul Daniel

Taken from Naxos 8.557276

In the Fen Country

The Fens (or Fenland or Fen Country) is marshy land in East Anglia – the east of England. The landscape is wide open, beautiful and sometimes bleak. Vaughan Williams seems to capture all of this in his ‘symphonic impression’, which was first performed in 1909. Opening the piece all by itself is the cor anglais (English horn), which is like the oboe but with a deeper sound – it sounds beautiful playing solos. It is joined at 0.44 by a solo viola. Soon others join, and the sound sweeps along.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.555867

A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2)

Like Beethoven, Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies in total. The first three have descriptive titles rather than being labelled by their numbers – so this second symphony is called A London Symphony. It doesn’t tell a story, but the composer lived in London and he had in his head the sounds he heard every day as he wrote this music. The first movement (track 1) builds slowly and quietly. You can hear at 6.04 how folk music was so important to the composer – at this point, it sounds more cheerful. But there is some drama as the brass instruments and percussion that have been conjuring up, as the composer said, ‘Hampstead Heath on an August bank holiday’ come crashing down to something sinister at 7.13. Vaughan Williams said the slow movement (track 2) was supposed to be ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon’. There is certainly a feeling of autumn, of something closing in as winter comes. For the lighter, livelier Scherzo (track 3), Vaughan Williams said, ‘If the listener will imagine himself standing on Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of The Strand… with its crowded streets and flaring lights, it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement.’ And in the final movement, he said: ‘Light after light goes down…the river passes – London passes, England passes.’ Times were changing for England, and Vaughan Williams could feel this. The symphony was written just before the First World War and after a few years it was dedicated to Vaughan Williams’s friend George Butterworth – he was a composer too and had encouraged Vaughan Williams to write a symphony. He was killed in the terrible Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Kees Bakels

Taken from Naxos 8.550734

Symphony No. 5

This Fifth Symphony was written between 1938 and 1943 – shortly before the Second World War. Overall it is a quiet, gentle symphony: there aren’t many places where it becomes big and loud, although it does happen – listen from 9.00 in track 1 to a long crescendo (getting louder). It doesn’t last though: it calms down again. The hushed beginning of the ‘Romanza’ (track 3) introduces a lovely melody on the cor anglais at 0.26 (English horn – like a lower-voiced oboe). The string instruments carry on with sustained (long, held) notes, as if they’re drawing a soft blanket across the ground. A passacaglia usually has a bass line that keeps repeating all the way through a piece: it happens at the beginning of track 4 – the low string instruments begin it, then they keep going with what they have just played after the higher instruments come in. Can you hear it going on beneath? It’s not always easy to pick it out! Eventually Vaughan Williams doesn’t use it anymore. Like the rest of the symphony, this movement is generally quiet and gentle.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Kees Bakels

Taken from Naxos 8.550738

Flos campi (‘The Flower of the Field’)

Flos campi (‘The Flower of the Field’), for solo viola, choir and orchestra, describes in music some of the words from The Song of Songs in the Bible, which celebrates love. The choir is treated like part of the orchestra – it has no words but just sounds such as ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, which adds an atmospheric layer to the music. Track 1 has a solo oboe twisting round with the solo viola – a curious beginning for ‘As the lily among thorns’. Strings and voices create a soft bed of sound to support the viola in track 2, which comes in with a lovely long melody at 0.38. In track 3, the viola is heard all on its own again before voices surge in at 0.30: they and the viola push the music forwards – can you hear the harp notes cascading at 1.00? Track 4 sounds a bit more like the ‘folky’ Vaughan Williams, with bouncy ‘off-beats’ (beats that come where you don’t quite expect them). Everything becomes very lush for track 5, and then, for the final section (track 6), ‘set me as a seal upon thy heart’, kindness and warmth fill first the orchestra, then the solo viola (1.22), then the voices (2.38). The whole thing ends as it began, the lonely oboe and viola weaving around each other – but a gentle humming from the choir now gives a warmth and peace.

Performers: Paul Silverthorne, viola; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Paul Daniel

Taken from Naxos 8.557276

Tuba Concerto

The tuba is a huge brass instrument: the bass of the brass section. It has a rounded sound – there is something really friendly about it. But it does spend most of the time bobbing along at the bottom of the orchestra: there are not many solo pieces for it. So people who play the tuba are very pleased with Vaughan Williams, because he wrote this brilliant concerto for it. He was 82 years old, yet the music is still so original and fresh! Because the instrument’s sound is so low, it would be easy for the orchestra to drown it out: it is only because Vaughan Williams knew what he was doing that it comes right out to play a starring role. The Prelude (track 1) is characterful and jaunty, with some bouncy rhythms. The ‘Romanza’ (track 2) begins with the strings drawing out a soft melody; woodwind instruments take it on (0.14) and then feed it to the tuba at 0.32, which takes it over. The Finale (track 3) shows just how nimble the big tuba can be: listen to its cadenza (the section in a concerto where the soloist plays completely alone) at 2.10. The orchestra joins in right at the very end, to finish with a flourish!

Performers: James Gourlay, tuba; Royal Ballet Sinfonia; Gavin Sutherland

Taken from Naxos 8.557754

Stage and Screen

49th Parallel Suite: I. Prelude

49th Parallel was a film released during the Second World War, about a U-Boat crew that is stranded in Canada and tries to escape to the USA. It was the first film that Vaughan Williams wrote music for, and this Prelude is famous. With its glorious sweeping melody, it captures the spirit of the time, as the Allied forces were trying to stand up to the Nazis, and free the world from trouble. As the camera pans over the Canadian Rockies at the start of the film, these words are spoken: ‘Across the great American Continent there runs a line drawn not by bloodshed and strife but by the common consent of the free peoples of two great countries. It is not a barrier – it is a meeting-place – it is the 49th parallel – the largest undefended frontier in the world.’

Performers: RTÉ Concert Orchestra; Andrew Penny

Taken from Naxos 8.573658

The Wasps, Aristophanic Suite

Just listen to the start of this and imagine a swarm of wasps! Composers can make musical instruments describe many things: Vaughan Williams’s wasps are well known. He wrote this music for a production at Cambridge University of a play called The Wasps by Aristophanes (first produced in 422 BC). Actually the ‘wasps’ are not real insects: they are members of the jury in the ancient law courts in Athens – old men who took ages to make decisions! The play is a comedy, poking fun at the legal system. In movement 3 (track 3) a dog has been accused of stealing, and a pot, pestle and water jug (the ‘kitchen utensils’) stand up for him. It is ridiculous, but also a clever way of pointing out the faults in the system while also entertaining an audience in the theatre. Vaughan Williams’s music is good fun, with plenty of energy.

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.572304

Job: A Masque for Dancing

Job: A Masque for Dancing is a ballet: the music was first performed in a concert in 1930, then the whole ballet was performed in 1931. It basically brings to life on stage, through music and dancing, paintings by William Blake that illustrated the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible. So Vaughan Williams tries to describe the biblical paintings in sound. The mood of the paintings is varied, and so the mood of the music is varied too. Vaughan Williams had different styles of writing, and this ballet includes quite a few of them: his Romantic, pastoral style (the kind of music that makes people think of green fields in England, e.g. the beginning of track 1); the rhythms of folk music (e.g. 2.16 in track 1); a more aggressive 20th-century style, with harsher harmonies (e.g. from 2.00 to 2.35 in track 4); and simply enjoying a nice big tune (e.g. 0.41 in track 8)!

Performers: English Northern Philharmonia; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.553955

Chamber Music

Piano Quintet in C Minor

Nearly 100 years before Vaughan Williams wrote this work, Franz Schubert had produced his ‘Trout’ Quintet: a piece for the unusual combination of violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano. The double bass isn’t so often found in chamber music, and the mixture gives an amazing span of sound: the violin can reach up really high and the double bass can reach down really low! Vaughan Williams took the same instruments for his quintet, and wrote a romantic, attractive work. He lets each instrument sound, loud and clear, at different times – the piano has a lovely solo at 3.00 in the first movement, the cello sings at 3.40, the viola takes over at 3.53, and then the violin at 4.03. And if you want to hear the double bass clearly – not always easy with such a low instrument – listen at 9.42 as it roots the end of movement 1 into the earth! The first movement is a bit like Brahms’s music, with its big, strong, confident phrases. The whole quintet, a work written quite early in Vaughan Williams’s composing life, has the true spirit of chamber music: a small group of musicians playing together and really enjoying themselves.

Performers: London Soloists Ensemble; Chris West, double bass

Taken from Naxos 8.573191

Choral Music

A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 2)

Vaughan Williams was not the first composer to write a symphony that included voices. Beethoven, Liszt and Mahler had done it earlier. But what is so special about A Sea Symphony is that the chorus is the star of the show. Vaughan Williams was, like many other composers of his generation, obsessed with poetry of the American poet Walt Whitman. The poet’s main subjects included the sea and the journey of the soul after death. The first movement (track 1) – ‘Song for all Seas, all Ships’ – has the most dramatic beginning, perhaps of all choral works ever written! The brass fanfare is taken over by the chorus: listen from the beginning to 1.50. The second movement – ‘On the Beach at Night, alone’ – is both comforting and spooky at the same time. Try track 2 from 1.10 to 2.30. The third movement – ‘The Waves’ – is very fast and wonderfully energetic. You can also see the deep blue sea with its waves dancing in the wind. The final movement – ‘The Explorers’ – begins with a view of the earth from space – years before the first rocket went up there. Listen to the opening of track 4 and you can feel a sense of how vast our planet is. Just before the end, the sailing ship pulls up its anchor and sets off in the strong wind and blue sky: listen to track 4 from 19.36 to 21.04. The work closes with the swaying of the waves – see if you can picture in your head, as you listen, a ship sailing into the distant sunset.

Performers: Joan Rodgers, soprano; Christopher Maltman, baritone; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra; Paul Daniel

Taken from Naxos 8.557059

Mass in G minor

Vaughan Williams composed his Mass in G minor in 1922 for his great friend, Gustav Holst. A Mass is a church service in Latin, and musical settings of the Mass use text from it. This one is written for two choirs, with solo singers, and is intended to be performed unaccompanied (‘a cappella’) – so no organ or piano. Vaughan Williams loved old English church music by composers such as Tallis and Byrd, and so this work has an Elizabethan feel. Listen to the ‘Kyrie’ (track 1) from the beginning to 1.06, where you can hear each voice enter like a silken thread. The second movement – ‘Gloria in excelsis’ – begins with a solo voice and is then joined by the whole choir in eight parts, singing the most wonderful harmony. Try track 2 from the beginning to 1.40: you can really sense the beauty of the building that they are singing in, as the sound rebounds from the walls. The third movement – ‘Credo’ – ends with the two choirs overlapping until they reach a harmonious conclusion: listen to track 3 from 5.00 to the end. Go straight into track 4 – ‘Sanctus’ – and play from the beginning to 1.02 to sample the gently swaying voices. The final movement – ‘Agnus Dei’ – uses the soloists as well as the two choirs, and if you listen to track 5 from 1.40 to the end, you will hear layers of sound being laid on top of each other to reach a truly beautiful 12-part chord at 3.00, which then disappears up to heaven…

Performers: The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Timothy Brown

Taken from Naxos 8.572465

Dona Nobis Pacem (‘Give us Peace’)

‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ means ‘gives us peace’. Vaughan Williams wrote this cantata in 1936, as Hitler’s armies were invading central Europe. His words are a mixture of Latin and English, mainly using the war poetry of Walt Whitman. It is composed for large chorus, orchestra, soprano and baritone. Though Vaughan Williams’s music is generally thought of as gentle and soothing, in this work there are also passages of intense brutality. You will hear this when, after the ‘Agnus Dei’ (‘Lamb of God’, track 1), you listen to the setting of ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ – track 2, from the beginning to 1.10. The next movement – ‘Reconciliation’ – is about forgiveness after war is over. Listen to track 3 from 0.30 to the end, where the baritone and the chorus bring calmness back to the world: they use the image that the tide washes the beach clean every day. You can hear the snare drum and bass drum at the beginning of the fourth movement, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, suggesting a battle: it describes father and son dying together in the fighting – try 4.10 to 5.12. After the troubled fifth movement, about the ‘Angel of Death’ (track 5), the final movement shows that Vaughan Williams was an optimist, full of hope and faith in the ability of mankind to sort out its problems. Play track 6 from 1.46 to the end: can you hear the church bells at 5.28 celebrating the return of peace?

Performers: Christina Pier, soprano; Matthew Brook, baritone; The Bach Choir; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; David Hill

Taken from Naxos 8.572424

Toward the Unknown Region

Some composers are child geniuses (like Mozart and Mendelssohn) but others, like Vaughan Williams, develop as they get older. In fact, if Vaughan Williams had died at the same age as Mozart, we would never have heard of him! This work, from 1907, firmly put Vaughan Williams on the map as he established his own particular sound. Until then, he had felt that his writing for orchestra lacked colour and imagination. Lessons with the French composer Ravel set him on the right path and he never looked back. This was his first work to include Walt Whitman’s poetry and it describes the journey of the soul after death. Vaughan Williams was not religious – he was an agnostic, which means he wasn’t sure if there was a God or not – and so he was curious about what happens to a person’s soul after death. It is an interesting question, and we might like the idea of a composer’s soul existing in the music, which is still around for people to listen to! At the beginning, the soul takes its first tentative steps after death. Later on, from 7.50 to the end, there is a wonderful sense of freedom and liberation, rather like a sailing boat setting off on a beautiful, blustery, sunny day.

Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.557798

Vocal Music

Five Mystical Songs

Written in 1911, these songs use words by the 17th-century poet George Herbert. The words are religious, although Vaughan Williams wasn’t religious himself. He was excellent at setting words to music, which is quite a skill: you have to make sure that the important words fall on the important beats. Otherwise you get a silly, lop-sided version of the text, with the little words like ‘and’ and ‘the’ grabbing the attention instead of the bigger words. It is also nice to give singers long notes on nice vowel sounds – if you put an ‘ee’ sound on a really high note, it can be difficult for a singer to make it sound pretty. So there are many things to think about, as well as the music itself! You can really hear this singer’s words, right from ‘Rise up, thy Lord is risen’ at beginning (listen to how the word ‘up’ goes up in the music!). These songs are sometimes for a baritone and an orchestra; Vaughan Williams made different versions. Here, the baritone sings them with a piano.

Performers: Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Graham Johnson, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557114

Songs of Travel

These Songs of Travel were first performed in 1904, so they are quite early works. Vaughan Williams uses poems by the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, and you can hear the words very clearly. The voice, a baritone, sings them with a piano – the words seem to go up and down in waves, as the music matches the lines of poetry. In No. 1, you can hear the ‘vagabond’ – a homeless traveller – tramping along, the piano making his heavy footsteps. He asks for nothing in his life except the road he travels on. In No. 2, the piano’s fast-flowing notes indicate an awakening. In No. 3, there is energy from both the piano and the voice – love is in the air! No. 4 is a thoughtful song; in the first half of it the voice and the piano are often anchored to the same notes (listen at 0.56 –1.10 for example); in the second half, it becomes more passionate. No. 5 mourns sadly a time that has passed. In No. 6, there is more wonder, with angelic ripples in the piano. In No. 7, the singer accepts that home is no longer home. Big chords in the piano for No. 8 match ‘Bright is the ring of words’, and at the beginning of the final song (track 9), we hear at the beginning the same music that was at the very start of track 1: it brings us full circle. The traveller has reached the end of life’s road.

Performers: Roderick Williams, baritone; Iain Burnside, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557643