Ralph Vaughan Williams

Work(s) Overview

    Description by Robert Cummings

    Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958) is probably the most important British composer between Elgar and Britten. Using folk sources and modal tonalities, he deftly fashioned a unique style in the post-Romantic vein. At the core of his output is his nine symphonies and a spate of other orchestral compositions. He was a bit less successful in the realms of opera, song, concerto, chamber, and film music. He did have some success in the choral genre, producing works like Flos Campi (1925) and the masterful Sancta civitas (1923 - 1925).

    His First Symphony (1903 - 1909; rev. 1923), called A Sea Symphony, also a choral composition, on texts by Walt Whitman, is richly Romantic but overlong and ultimately not a success. His next, A London Symphony (1912 - 1913; rev. 1920 and 1933), is a programmatic work that was the composer's favorite symphony. The Pastoral, his Third Symphony (1921), is bucolic and relaxed, but lacks variety. The Fourth (1931 - 1934), Fifth (1938 - 1943; rev. 1951), and Sixth (1944 - 1947; rev. 1950) are generally regarded as his greatest symphonies. The violence of the Fourth is seen by many as a premonition of the coming World War, while the peaceful nature of the ensuing symphony has been viewed as auguring its end. The Sixth may be his most profound, with its eerie pianissimo finale said to foretell nuclear destruction of earth.

    The Seventh Symphony, the so-called Sinfonia antartica (1949 - 1952), draws on Vaughan Williams' 1948 film score Scott of the Antarctic. It is powerfully atmospheric and features an eerie wordless chorus. The Eighth Symphony (1953 - 1955; rev. 1956) is exotic and colorful, but less compelling than its immediate predecessors. The Ninth (1956 - 1957; rev. 1958) is interesting but another step downward.

    Vaughan Williams' forays into opera demonstrated talent, perhaps even masterful skill. Hugh the Drover (1910 - 1914; rev. 1956), Sir John in Love (1924 - 1928), and Riders to the Sea (1925 - 1932) never achieved lasting success, but their music is attractive, their vocal writing strong and their flaws seemingly minor. Perhaps his most important work for the stage is Job (1927 - 1930), described as a "masque for dancing." Many musicologists see it as the stylistic springboard from which came the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.

    Vaughan Williams' concertos are somewhat less successful than his symphonies and stage works. The Concerto accademico (1924 - 1925) is Bach-like and quite worthwhile, as is The Lark Ascending (1914 - 1920; rev. 1920), for violin and orchestra, technically not a concerto. But the Piano Concerto (1926 - 1931), which features a driven first-movement toccata not entirely compatible with the composer's nature, and the Tuba Concerto (1954), a humorous, colorful piece, are not strong works.

    Vaughan Williams' film scores were uneven efforts. Scott of the Antarctic certainly contained some powerful music -- music, however, that was best realized in the Seventh Symphony. Of the other ten efforts, none was outstanding. Of the many songs, folk song arrangements and hymn tune arrangements by Vaughan Williams, many are attractive, some masterful. Yet, enduring popularity in this genre has eluded the composer.