SONATA FOR THREE; Menage a Trois: Vaughan Williams, His Wife Adeline (Left) and Ursula Wood in 1938, the Year They Met

Daily Mail (London), May 20, 2008 | Go to article overview

SONATA FOR THREE; Menage a Trois: Vaughan Williams, His Wife Adeline (Left) and Ursula Wood in 1938, the Year They Met


By John Bridcut

HUDDLED together in the sandbagged bedroom of a bungalow in Dorking, Surrey,the three figures trembled in the darkness.

It was the summer of 1944 and the height of Hitler's doodlebug raids, whenpilotless aircraft and their signature droning brought terror and destructionto Southern England.

In one of the twin beds lay Ralph Vaughan Williamsalready acclaimed as one of the finest composers ever to emerge in Britain.

In the other lay his wife of 48 years, Adeline.

And in between them, lying on a mattress placed on the floor, was Ursula Wood,a glamorous young poet whose close friendship with the great composeralmost four decades her senior had by now become a full-blown affair.

That Vaughan Williams should have invited his mistress into the marital home atall may seem strange. But the scene that night was even more perplexing. For onone side of her mattress, Ursula clasped the hand of the composer; on theother, she held the hand of his wife, as all three of them listened anxiouslyto the V-1 planes overhead, and waited for the ominous cut of their engines.

This extraordinary image, uncovered as part of a new documentary that I havemade for the BBC, exposes the intriguing details of Williams's colourfulprivate life that were kept hidden for decades.

Only now, 50 years after his death, can the story of his long, passionate loveaffair be told, thanks to a remarkable confession from the woman with whom heshared the final chapter of his life. And in so doing, it brings a newperspective to the glorious music which continues to inspire such affection.

This spring, for the second year running, Vaughan Williams's enchanting workThe Lark Ascending topped a Classic FM listeners' poll to become the mostpopular piece of classical music. His work is also enjoying a huge revival,with performances in cities all over the world.

But there is far more to it than the gentle pastoralism of chirruping larks orthe homely lyricism of his Fantasia On Greensleeves. Much of the music isromantic, with turbulent undercurrentssometimes angry, sometimes erotic, but always passionate. And it was this sameanger and passion, I believe, that lay behind the extraordinary menage a troisthat he conducted for 13 years.

Williams was, by all accounts, a red-blooded male. He was jokingly called UncleRalph by the dozens of female singers who lined up to give him admiring kissesafter choral concerts which he had conducted.

There are stories of him lumbering up the stairs to the top floor of the RoyalCollege of

Music, where a beautiful young music student was practising the violin, just tosnatch a glance at her through the window.

On one occasion, the beautiful 1920s pianist Harriet Cohen asked him to writeher a piano concerto.

He agreed to the commissionin return for 10,000 kisses. She accepted the deal and paid off her 'debt' overa series of meetings. SUCH flirtations were always half in jest. For as ahandsome but unknown 24-year-old, Williams had married a cousin of VirginiaWoolf, the coolly elegant Adeline Fisher.

Theirs was not a passionate marriage.

There were to be no children, and from the start, he had been frustrated by hiswife's obsessive devotion to her extensive family.

Adeline had been deeply affected when her brother was killed in World War I,and wore mourning black for the rest of her life.

She also developed rheumatoid arthritis which left her increasingly immobile,meaning that the couple were obliged to move out of London to a bungalow inDorking.

For Williams, who had relished life in the capital, it was a frustratingperiod, reflected in his violently discordant 4th Symphony.

Then, just as he was resigning himself to old age, into his life stepped theflattering and youthful presence of Ursula Wood. As a young drama student atthe Old

Vic in London, Ursula had been captivated by Williams's music after seeing hisballet Job. …

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