MUSIC IS FOREVER ENGLAND; Ralph Vaughan Williams, (below) Who Died 40 Years Ago Was the Quintesse Ntial English Composer. but Little Englanders Should Be Wary of Claiming Him as One of Their Own, Argues Terry Grimley

The Birmingham Post (England), April 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

MUSIC IS FOREVER ENGLAND; Ralph Vaughan Williams, (below) Who Died 40 Years Ago Was the Quintesse Ntial English Composer. but Little Englanders Should Be Wary of Claiming Him as One of Their Own, Argues Terry Grimley


When a television producer wants to trigger that love of the English countryside which is one of our national characteristics, he or she is likely to reach for a recording of Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending .

Juxtapose this lovely music with a lark's-eye view of the English landscape in glorious summer - not just any English landscape, but the undulating patchwork of the South Midlands, say Oxfordshire - and you have heart-stoppingly distilled what for many o f us is still the essence of England.

"Magical" is an overworked word when applied to art, but it is surely justified in describing the uncanny effect of the static string chords over which the twittering lark of the solo violin arcs heavenwards. They seem to evoke a landscape in rapt contem plation of itself.

If you know the date of this music - 1914 - the final poignant touch is added to an idyll which seems to preserve an England unsullied by the major calamities of the 20th century.

On the strength of this and other works, Vaughan Williams has long been regarded as the quintessential English composer. Yet I wonder how well the English know his music.

There is a familiar image of the composer in his final years, a square-cut, shambling figure of great antiquity, topped by a snowy thatch. Secure among the great and good, his music seemed as familiar and comfortable as a welorn pair of slippers.

Even Jimmy Porter, the trumpet-wielding angry young man of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, was not angry about Vaughan Williams: "Give me something English," he demands when offered the prospect of a VW symphony on the radio: "Something I can understa nd..."

Today he is still a popular composer, to judge from the number of CDs in the shops, although relatively little of his music is played in concerts. It is tempting to describe A Pastoral Symphony as the greatest masterpiece of English music never to be pla yed.

In professional music circles, Vaughan Williams has rather a poor reputation, reflecting the backlash which started around 1960, when William Glock took over as head of music at the BBC.

Up to this time British music had ploughed an insular field, largely unaffected by the developments of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. When the young Benjamin Britten wanted to study with Schoenberg's pupil Berg, moves were made to prevent it as though the impressionable young man was in danger of moral corruption.

When the dam finally burst, it carried away much of Vaughan Williams's reputation. Britten, now the nation's leading composer, despised his elder compatriot, whose music he thought amateurish.

Neither dismissal nor carpet-slippered appreciation seem to me an adequate response to the range and content of Vaughan Williams's music. The man himsel born in the quaintly-named Cotswold village of Down Ampney and related on his mother's side to both C harles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, is an interesting figure - a plain Englishman, perhaps, but not necessarily a simple one.

He edited The English Hymnal but was an atheist in his youth and never progressed in faith beyond agnosticism; a member of the comfortable middle class who never had to work for a living (unlike his great friend Gustav Holst, who served time as a teacher and pit-band trombonist) but was a socialist; an exemplary establishment figure who was one of the very few in the arts to have refused a knighthood, an English patriot who looked forward to the creation of a United States of Europe.

At the end of the Second World War Vaughan Williams was involved in the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, forerunner of the Arts Council. But his enthusiasm for amateur arts, for people taking part rather than passively listening,foun d little favour. The English arts world was impatient to get itself on a professional footing, to distance itself from May Day pageants and country dancing.

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MUSIC IS FOREVER ENGLAND; Ralph Vaughan Williams, (below) Who Died 40 Years Ago Was the Quintesse Ntial English Composer. but Little Englanders Should Be Wary of Claiming Him as One of Their Own, Argues Terry Grimley
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