Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney,
Gloucestershire, on October 12, 1872. Three years after his birth, however, his
father died, and his mother, the great-granddaugther of Josiah Wedgwood, took
her family to live at Leith Hill Place, a Wedgwood family home in Surrey Hills.
There Vaughan Williams began taking piano and compositions lessons at the age
of six, and violin lessons the following year. He later attended the Royal
College of Music where he studied composition with Hubert Parry, and was a
fellow pupil with Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski would go on to perform many of Vaughan
William's symphonies and gave the U.S. premiere of his Ninth Symphony in 1958.
At the Royal College of Music, Vaughan Williams also met and befriended fellow
composer Gustav Holst. Holst was influential on Vaughan Williams's development
as a composer, and the two often gave constructive criticism on each other's
works in progress. Vaughan Williams's also studied briefly with Max Bruch in
Berlin (in 1897) and with Maurice Ravel (for three months during 1907-08).
As a composer, Vaughan Williams's career was slow to emerge.
His first published composition, the song "Linden Lea," did not appear until he
was thirty years old. His first major public success, however, did not come
until 1910 with the premiere of the Fantasia
on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for string orchestra. His first symphony, A Sea Symphony, was premiered the same
year and was also a public success for the composer. Vaughan Williams's also
actively took part in conducting, lecturing, editing music, and transcribing
the waning oral tradition of English folk songs and carols. He was fascinated
with these folk melodies and even used some of them in his own compositions.
At the outbreak of World War I, Vaughan Williams was already
forty-one years of age and likely could have avoided war service altogether.
Nevertheless, he voluntarily enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving
first as a stretcher bearer in France and Salonika before being commissioned as
a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. In 1918, he was appointed
Director of Music, First Army.
Following the war, his music took on a somewhat reflective
and mystical style, exhibited in works such as Flos Campi and his third symphony A Pastoral Symphony. However, in 1924, a radically different style
emerged, exemplified by abundant cross-rhythms and dissonant harmonies. By the
late 1930's, his music returned to a mature lyrical style with works such as
the Serenaade to Music and his
Symphony No. 5 in D minor. This last work, premiered when the composer was
seventy, was considered by many to be his swan song, yet Vaughan Williams's
went on to compose four more symphonies before his death.
In his final years, Vaughan William's supervised recordings
of all but his ninth and final symphony. He passed on August 26, 1958, the
night before recordings were to begin of that symphony. When recording of the
symphony began, the conductor announced to the orchestra that their performance
would be in memory of the Vaughan Williams's.
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