Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Hallé
Butterworth, Arthur, Musical Opinion
The distinguished composer and orchestral musician, who celebrated his 88th birthday in August, recalls his experiences with the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and his music over more than seventy-five years. Arthur Butterworth's own new Seventh Symphony, Opus 140, which he has recently completed, is to be performed in the new year. He has written an introduction to the work for Musical Opinion which will appear in our series 'My New Music' nearer the time of the premiere.
Sometime in the early 1 94Os I went with my father to a Sunday afternoon Hallé concert in Manchester, conducted by Sir Henry Wood. As far as I can remember this was the very first time I had heard a symphony by Vaughan Williams; it was A London Symphony. Before that, as a much younger boy, I had of course seen in 'Radio Times' the name: 'R. Vaughan Williams' (which I had always imagined was pronounced 'Vaug-gan'), but these notices in 'Radio Times' were generally listing recitals of his very well-known songs, such as S//enf Noon or Linden Lea. I had no idea in those far-off days that he wrote music for large orchestra too. So this wartime Sunday afternoon performance of A London Symphony was quite a new experience for me. Being an ardent young brass player, with ambitions to be an orchestral trumpeter, an improbable ambition so it seemed at that time, I was especially interested to see coming on to the stage for this performance extra brass players - two cornet players!
Now the cornet, that plebeian brass band instrument, is not really a regular constituent of a symphony orchestra, but rather the far more noble and arrogant trumpet, yet on occasion the cornet does figure in orchestral music; more especially French scores, whereas the classic German scores tended to despise this nineteenth-century new-fangled addition to the brass family. However, as a brass player myself (and at that time primarily a brass band cornet player) I was most intrigued to see these two players suddenly come on to the stage to join the rest of the large orchestra. In fact, I was more than a bit jealous, because / would just have loved to have had the opportunity to have taken part instead of them!
What did I make of this first hearing of a Vaughan William major work? Well, frankly, not all that much; it seemed too long but I must say I liked the brass writing. So time went on, I had to join the army, but on odd occasions there were chances to hear this and that of RVW on the radio, usually in noisy army canteens. However, on leave from time to time, I still went to war-time Hallé concerts and began to recognise Vaughan Williams's very English musical voice. One of the most significant performances however was while I was still in Germany just a month or two after the War. The Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra (now under the management of the British Military Government's general supervision) gave regular broadcast concerts conducted by Captain Trevor Harvey, a British army officer (a conductor who, years later, my elder daughter was to be leader for in a youth orchestra in Yorkshire). This German performance was of the Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto. Soon afterwards, on leave, I chanced to hear the TaIIIs Fantasia and this experience, probably more than any other, firmly won me over to a full appreciation of Vaughan Williams.
It was to be some time, however, before that early ambition - to be an orchestral player - was finally achieved. While still a music student I had heard that first overwhelming performance of the Sixth Symphony in April 1948, and very soon afterwards heard the Hallé play it under Barbirolli in Manchester. I longed to be able to take part in this stunning symphony, and a year later, having by then joined the Scottish Orchestra (now the RSNO) in Glasgow, this ambition was fulfilled. Sometime in 1949 I had the audacity to write to RVW, asking his advice as a composer. The result (as the etter, quoted in Hugh Cobbe's letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1895-1958' [Oxford University Press] outlines) was that I came to know him. …