Vaughan Williams’ genius is now indisputable

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Vaughan Williams

Eric Saylor

OUPp. 336£22.99

The Captain’s Apprentice: Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Story of a Folksong

Caroline Davison

Chatto & Windusp. 400£20

Classical music plays hell with people’s posthumous reputations, as any admirer of the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams will tell you. In 1972, on the occasion of the centenary of his birth, many respects were shown to him. Not only were there special concerts of his music, but the post office, which is now more focused on commemorating gay pride, issued a stamp. Since the composer’s death in 1958, he and his works had entered an eclipse, in particular because of the atonalists who controlled the Third Program and many of our concert halls. These were people who believed that the British music-loving public should be fed what Kathleen Ferrier called “three farts and a raspberry, orchestrated”. The eclipse resumed after 1972. For a few years it remained the case that finding performances of his works, especially in London concert halls, was tantamount to a rare moment of ecstasy.

But then, from around the late 1980s, things changed. Prominent conductors began recording cycles of his nine symphonies, and works other than ‘The Lark Ascending’, ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Tallis Fantasia’ could be spotted on concert programs. In 2008, the 50th anniversary of his death, he was back in business. Tony Palmer made a great movie about him. Under Roger Wright, Radio 3 and the Proms finally did something the BBC should have been built for: they promoted British music, and in particular that of Vaughan Williams.

Something of a turning point came in the 2012 Proms season, when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under the brilliant direction of Andrew Manze, performed in a rather raunchy concert the three middle symphonies – Nos 4, 5 and 6 Anyone present who had thought that Vaughan Williams was simply a good composer would have realized that he was in fact an exceptionally great composer. Today his place as one of the landmarks of English culture is indisputable, and recognition of his dominant position in our national life and as a figure in international music can only grow.

His 150th birthday also drew a host of tributes – he was composer of the week on Radio 3 for a month – and these two books are part of this commemoration. Eric Saylor is part of the Oxford University Press “Master Musicians” series and well deserves his place in this distinguished company.

The author draws on two major developments in the studies of Vaughan Williams since the turn of the century. The first is Hugh Cobbe’s magnificent initiative to publish the composer’s letters, both as a substantial OUP volume and online. The second was the unwavering commitment of Albion Records, the recording arm of the Vaughan Williams Society, to seek out the scores of many of the composer’s unperformed or unrecorded works and record them. Many of them date back to the early years of the last century, when Vaughan Williams cut his teeth as a composer. Along with the letters, Saylor can draw on this resource to give a much fuller picture of the early years – that is, up to 1914 – than any other biography, even the standard one of his widow Ursula Vaughan Williams, and the long biographical sketches in the catalog by Michael Kennedy.

Moreover, there was much about Vaughan Williams’ private life that discretion prevented a biographer from publishing while Ursula was still alive (she died in 2007, aged 96). It was widely known that the two carried on an affair while Adeline, the composer’s first wife, severely disabled by rheumatoid arthritis, was still alive, and that Adeline not only closed her eyes, but did everything she could to encourage and support Ursula. Saylor states that Ursula had an abortion around 1941, possibly of the composer’s child, and that other of her friends and Adeline were positively hostile. And Saylor gives a full account of Vaughan Williams’ other activities, including his life as a teacher, but also as a philanthropist (he occasionally funded Gustav Holst and invested much of his own money in the Leith Hill Festival near from his home in Dorking) and a man of deep principles.

Yet the great value of the book is Saylor’s intelligent view of music, especially his analyzes and interpretations of the symphonies and other major works. His assessment of the Sixth Symphony – so often, and rightly, taken as a description of the terrible war that had just ended when the composer began writing it in 1944, and an absolutely crucial part of the canon – is particularly intelligent and convincing, representing the work as a simple commentary on the human condition.

Saylor is an American writer from America, but with considerable expertise in British music. Some would say that the essential anglicism of Vaughan Williams’ music, the shared and atavistic cultural experience he has with listeners in his own country, might be difficult for a foreigner to appreciate; indeed, his belief that the “Holberg Suite” was written by Holst and not Grieg is perplexing. Likewise, there is something to be said for the objective point of view which must be adopted instead, in which the music speaks for itself and illustrates not a progressive stage in cultural history but the whole of the development of a composer. This is a book that every admirer of Vaughan Williams and his music should have and keep.

Caroline Davison’s book is initially about the story behind “The Captain’s Apprentice”, a beautiful folk song that Vaughan Williams collected at King’s Lynn in 1905. The song tells the story of a boy emerging from the workshop of the city ​​to work on board a merchant ship, and who was so brutally treated by the captain that “the poor fellow is dead”. Davison is to be commended for the details she produces of the composer’s visit to Norfolk, the people he met there and the songs they sang to him. It correctly provides ample context on Vaughan Williams’ collection of folksongs in general, and the other people (such as Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, George Butterworth and Holst) with whom he did so. But then the book turns to a biography of the composer’s early years, much of which is familiar, and to ruminations on the effect on the author herself of the song that gives her book its title, and of the first “Norfolk Rhapsody” in which, orchestrated, she plays such an essential role.

Davison seems to have benefited (if that is the word) from a course in “creative non-fiction” at a university. The effects of this are, I fear, seen in other hijackings, where she amplifies contemporary reports of court cases involving cruel sea captains with her own imagination of aspects of what else happened . Some will think that’s a good idea. I am not one. Sometimes I wondered if his book had been published at all; it would certainly have benefited from being shorter, more focused and better organized. It’s a shame, because his intentions are honorable, and it was an important moment in the creative life of Vaughan Williams. I doubt we’ve seen the latest research on the composer, and the years he’s been tracking down folksongs still hold much to discover and put together.

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