Ralph Vaughan Williams, classical music composer

Ralph Vaughan Williams image

Ralph Vaughan Williams


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.

Composer Title Date Action
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Vagabond, from Songs of Travel 03/21/2009 Play Add to playlist
Ralph Vaughan Williams From "Songs of Travel," The Vagabond 01/16/2009 Play Add to playlist
Ralph Vaughan Williams From "Songs of Travel," Let Beauty Awake 01/13/2009 Play Add to playlist
Ralph Vaughan Williams From "Songs of Travel," Whither Must I Wander 01/15/2009 Play Add to playlist
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending 04/26/2013 Play Add to playlist