Ralph Vaughan Williams
Dynamics of the Countryside
Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Vaughan Williams was an English composer who broke the mold in terms of English music. All that went before him flowed in one direction, namely toward Teutonic sound; and all that flowed after his artistry flowed in the direction of the pastoral beauty of England.
I entitled this essay “Dynamics of the Countryside” in part because of the carping that I read online about the digital recordings of this auditory artist: It’s too hard to hear the softer music and then if you turn the volume up, it’s too loud!
In music, “dynamics” are the variations and contrasts in the force or intensity of the sound. The compositions of Mr. Williams were ripe with dynamics! No need to adjust the volume. Wait a bit and the songbird in flight will return to you.
I am not a romantic, but I’m not a non-romantic. I realistically possess a romantic vision, and with that vision, I aspire to the sounds that this brilliant Englishman composed: heavenly, elegiac in a way that is uplifting, intensely romantic, almost to the point of sensuousness. And he accomplished his “voice” through a noble striving to grant, anew, to the English people, the folksongs of their foundational civilization.
Into the life of each Englishman, and throughout the hours of each Englishwoman, the music of this composer would offer an elevating auditory research project involving the elemental graceful music that made England England.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born 17 October 1872 at the vicarage in the village of Down Ampney, in the Cotswold district in Gloucestershire. His family of origin was comfortably affluent during an era of strong belief in the nonstop progress of humanity.
Ever onward and upward was the presumption of the time; the Great War must have thrown a monkey wrench into that conception of the world for this sensitive Englishman. At the age of forty-two, at the start in that war, he volunteered for military service.
His development as an individual, and thus as a musician, was profoundly affected by the deaths and the carnage of the Great War, the cataclysmic clash among the upper classes of Europe for the domination of a continent, a bloody power struggle that has yet to be resolved. Before that war, Vaughan Williams spent a fairly long time studying his art, starting in 1906-07 under the tutelage of Maurice Ravel, the French composer of unorthodox bend.
Judging by his results, his intentions must have been to purge English musical composition of the sounds and smells of the German-dominated styles of the 19th century: the heavy, overwrought intensity that lurch to the far (loud) end of the dynamic scale. Tudor music was an influence upon Vaughan Williams, but it was the simple and touching elegance of the English folk song that captured the heart, mind, soul and ears of this creative master.
One can only guess at the intensity of his impulse to purify English music from foreign auditory interventions after he survived his engagements in the battles of the Great War. His inner scars proved to be catalysts for symphonic sounds that overtake any sorrows and elicit from the human heart the inspirations to live and love and reach forever forward.
The philosophy of “Ever onward and upward” from his childhood is wrought powerfully in the notes and chords of the music of Ralph Vaughn Williams.
His “true voice” emerged when he was in his late thirties. What the world was to experience from this innovative composer in his prime was an elemental form of composition in music that combined the textures of his own vastly original euphony with English folk tunes that formed an enormous part of his œuvre.
It is believed that Vaughan Williams first took note of the potential of the English folk song for use in composition in 1903. He heard someone in the village of Ingrave in Essex, lifting up his voice to the lovely lilting tune, “Through Bushes and Briars”. This type of folk song became the groundwork on which Vaughan Williams built the structure of his own works.
Not since Henry Purcell during the English Renaissance of the 17th century did an Englishman create music so patently and purely English. And Purcell achieved his auditory feats through blending into his compositions bits and pieces of French and Italian elements of style.
To listen to The Lark Ascending is to banish any care or woe from any dismal moment in your life, past, present, or even future. Ralph Vaughan Williams was a man of prescient talents. His compositions, dynamic and soft, stormy and placid, are among the finest of any auditory traditions to come down the ages to today. His symphonic and orchestral music soothe, as well as ring, with exhilarating grace, mystery, vigor, allure and exquisite tranquillity.
Vaughan Williams succumbed unexpectedly early on the morning of 26 August 1958 in London. His life had been one of prolific creativity, merged with patriotic duty to his native land. For the coronation of his monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, on 2 June 1953, he composed an embellished arrangement of the traditional Scottish metrical psalter, “Old 100th”.
The flourishes of military trumpets figured largely in this piece, a musical message for the people of England, then and now, to ne’er forget their heritage and the magnificent strength of their culture, this land of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Purcell and, yes, Ralph Vaughan Williams.