National Music and Other Essays

National Music and Other Essays

National Music and Other Essays

National Music and Other Essays

Synopsis

Ralph Vaughan Williams held strong views on many musical subjects. He never hesitated to express his views in plain, vigorous prose, and he became well-known for his essays, which combine typical common sense with a true composer's sensitivity. This collection contains all his writings that he thought worth preserving in book form. Topics include nationalism in music, the evolution of folk-song, and the origins of music, as well individual composers like Beethoven, Gustav Holst, Bach, Sibelius, Arnold Bax, and Elgar. Also included are more general reflections on the making of music, its purpose and effects, and the social foundations of music.

Excerpt

What we really have here, although it is presented in disguise as two series of lectures and some occasional writings on a variety of subjects, is Vaughan Williams's musical autobiography. It is his Apologia pro vita mea, to vary Cardinal Newman's title, for although he may appear to be writing about folk-song, Beethoven, and hymn-tunes, he is also telling the reader what it was like to be the man who set out deliberately, with his friend Gustav Holst, to turn himself into an English composer. He achieved his aim, to a degree that enriched the music of his nation with some of its noblest and finest works, but there was also a penalty to be paid in that those who are not in sympathy with his aesthetic, not 'on his wavelength', as we would say today, regard him as parochial and even chauvinistic. They forget that he was, in the mildest and least aggressive way, a revolutionary and that, like all revolutionaries when they get into print, he often over-stated or over-coloured a point in order to put it across. He was a big man physically, and he had bold, big opinions and prejudices which he did not assume you would share. There was always a twinkle in his eye, too, the visual equivalent of the paradox in so much of his speech. 'Who believes in God nowadays, I should like to know', he declared to Bertrand Russell when they were undergraduates at Cambridge in 1892, and he went on to compose the music of the gates of heaven opening to receive the weary Pilgrim after his progress from this world to the next!

If a book with the title National Music had been published in 1934 under, say, a Munich imprint, it would have been looked on askance, just as the word 'nationalist' today has taken on a pejorative meaning for which politicians are wholly responsible. Yet had it been called The People's Music it would have been equally suspect and misunderstood. Home-made Music would have been not much better, though nearer to what Vaughan Williams had in mind, for the theme of the lectures he gave at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in the autumn of 1932 was the same as he . . .

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