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Biography, Music Media Review



Thorough Appraisal of Now Often Underrated and Overlooked Composer

January 8, 2023 - Easthampton, MA:


Eric Saylor, Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872-26 August 1958), Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, ("Master Musicians" series), © 2022, Pp. xv + 339; $35.00 via Amazon.

The © year was the 150th anniversary of the subject's birth, and this biography is the most thorough, but at the same time, the most succinct yet. It is also eminently readable, while still being chock-a-block full of details; no stone was left unturned. Several of the references are prior works by Saylor himself, so he must be the most up-to-date living scholar on his subject, and he wisely chose not to bring in/repeat the detailed material found in those, a good decision in terms of keeping the text down to a digestible-sized one.

RVW was a very prolific composer, in all sorts of genres. Saylor organizes the 18-chapter text by dividing the life into nine segments of more or less equal lengths, varying from 11 years (the first 1890-1901) to six (for three), all but the first under 10. Breaks are determined by milestones in his composing, or in history that affected it, treating the biographical information in the odd-numbered, and the music in the even-numbered ones. Every work is described and assessed, in strict chronological order, something that I do not adhere to in this text, in order to interconnect topics.

Saylor's writing style is eminently readable; it flows like a stream, but is carefully documented, chock-a-block full of details and info in rapid succession, dense though it is. Like me, he doesn't seem to believe in 'tmi', but thinks 'nei' is the culprit. He is good at piecing together a life of details and tidbits; like Sherlock Holmes, he teases out snippets everywhere.

Like mine, RVW's father died suddenly when he was young, only 2, as opposed to me, just under 6. RVW believed that "music should be part of everyone's life, whether to entertain, educate, or inspire." (p. xiii) Although he was from the privileged class, he also believed that English music should reflect the music of the common Englishman, and began by notating folk songs, perhaps the first composer to do so extensively. He was also interested in the Elizabethan age, and took a correspondence course on it (p. 3). He preferred the string instruments to the keyboard ones, violin at first, but later viola (p. 3). He did not go to Germany for training, as many did, but his honeymoon in 1897-98 was to Berlin, where he met and worked privately with Max Bruch. He studied at Cambridge, where he met Ralph Wedgwood, called Randolph, his maternal second cousin, two years younger, who "kept me up to the mark. I am naturally of a bestial, lazy, sensual, earthly devilish nature, but when I was with you[,] a lot of that used to disappear, it was entirely your example that made me do what little work I did so." (p. 9), and at the RCM, where he met Gustav Holst, also 2 years younger, who became his best friend (pp. 9-10); his death in 1934 from heart failure was "a crashing blow" (p.131). He went to France to work with Maurice Ravel, who was three years younger, in 1907-08 (pp. 38-39), with whom he maintained a good friendship until his death in 1937; he came to England to visit RVW a few times, first in 1909 (p. 56); Ravel arranged a performance of On Wenlock Edge in Paris in 1912 (p. 61).

His last composition at Cambridge in 1899 was a Mass, that was never published, because it was not a complete one; it came to be known as A Cambridge Mass (pp. 20-21), when it was discovered, published, and premièred, in Cambridge, UK, and in the USA, in 2011-12, in Northampton, MA, with people from Cambridge present; I was in the chorus of that performance. It was given this name to distinguish it from the Mass in G minor, composed in 1922, that was very successful: "It places Vaughan Williams firmly in the tradition of Tallis and Byrd, with whose music the Mass is so frequently compared, and like the other pastoral works of this era, it expresses Vaughan Williams's visionary spirit more eloquently than words ever could." (pp. 100-01).

He was often at first unsure of himself and his abilities. "[H]e neither fished for nor expected compliments from others, in no small part because he often found it difficult to validate his own efforts as worthwhile." (p. 27) He rarely (if ever) composed a work in its final form before its première, held that, and then let it sit for a while, revising it, often numerous times, later (sometimes many years later) before he was satisfied with it, called it finished, and published it. Sometimes, he got back into work by "making a series of arrangements. Between 1919 and 1922 [after the end of the 'Great War'], he set over forty folk tunes, popular airs, sea songs, carols, and hymns in multiple guises: for unaccompanied singer; solo voice and piano; choir with vocal soloist; and unison, male, or mixed choirs (a cappella or with accompaniment). Some represented new undertakings, while others resumed projects that he had begun before the war. While most of the melodies he arranged were either his own or of anonymous origin, they also included musical and textural contributions from the likes of Shakespeare, Purcell, William Boyce, Robert Burns, and Charles Dibden, as well as non-English tunes such as Scottish airs "Loch Lomond" and "Ca' the Yowes," and Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home," a popular number among the BEF choirs. […]" (p. 90). This will give you an idea of how full his mind was, and how it functioned…, and all of these things ultimately congealed and came to be. This was, of course, not an issue with a folk-song that he was recording, which is why he got so many of those done: he did "more than 800 over the next decade, and more than a quarter of that number in 1904 alone." (p. 31) He was essentially a perfectionist to his own concepts and standards; he was no simpleton!

"Postwar Britain found itself irrevocably changed, and its musical life was no exception, With the death of Parry, Stanford's withdrawal from public life, and the gradual waning of Elgar's compositional activity (if not his reputation), a new generation of composers emerged in their stead, with Vaughan Williams at the helm." (p. 102) Ivor Gurney, a pupil of both Stanford and RVW, a gifted poet and composer, suffered from injuries and shellshock in the Great War, and was becoming bipolar. Adeline (RVW's wife) had cared for her brother Hervey for many years, so they regularly visited him at Dartford, the mental hospital where he was confined until his death in 1937 (p. 106). Adeline's health declined with arthritis, so they moved to Dorking, where he adopted new hobbies, mostly outdoors ones. (p. 127) His composing also seemed to increase: "Eight new works debuted in 1930 […]." (p. 128) He wrote more symphonies in the last years, too: nos 4-9. He was in some ways a late-bloomer; it was in his last years that he seemed to be the most prolific. Heading towards WW II, he also had an affair with Ursula Wood, that Adeline accepted (pp. 162-64); she became his second wife after Adeline died in 1951, and was the same kind of support to him as Adeline had always been.

Throughout the book, you learn the nature of his character from passing comments; he was quite self-effacing. "He held himself to an extraordinarily high artistic standard, and rarely felt he had attained it." (p. 27), hardly a standard one for someone of his social class. In 1905, he took on editing, unremunerated, as the folksong collecting was, The English Hymnal (p. 33); it was for him "a reforming and revivalist approach to national music." (p. 33) He was also generous and supportive of others: he "was aware of his inherited privilege, and although he wore it lightly, his moral compass was guided by a combination of noblesse oblige and principles of / Morrisonian socialism reflecting his commitment to fair play, equal opportunity, and communal responsibility." (pp. 39-40) He also lectured frequently at Morley College (p. 40), and was composing works he conceived all the time. Some of his earlier works were destroyed, others got lost (including the score of A London Symphony that was sent to Germany (and, as it would turn out, lost).", so he had to reconstruct it from the parts that were still in London, (p. 77), others were left unpublished (p. 42). He was philanthropically motivated, and created the "RVW Trust" in 1956 (p. 213).

His military service in the "Great War" (WW I is a later term, because no one knew then that there'd be another one) are detailed in chapter 7. He enlisted in the "Special Constabulary" early on, a part-time position at first to allow him to continue with his teaching commitment, but this "did not satisfy his desire to serve his country, so on 31 December 1914, he enlisted in the Territorial Forces as Private no. 2033 […] even though, at forty-two, he was over the age of conscription […]." (p. 77) It was at the end of the war that he was offered a professorship at the RCM. His "teaching methods were undogmatic, drawing upon the qualities he admired in Parry and Bruch. […] He eschewed textbooks in favor of models from historical literature (formulating exercises that obliged his students to apply those works' structural principals to their own compositions) […]." The students 'ate it up.' (p. 83) "He mentored many of his students well beyond / their time at RCM by attending rehearsals of new works, promoting and facilitating performances of their music, and providing professional advice." (pp. 83-4) This was a new method in 1920. He also contributed to the war effort in the 1935-45 war (pp. 157-58).

In addition, "In November 1919, the newly revived Handel Society brought him on as conductor, and he accepted the music directorship of the Bach Choir two years later […]" (p. 84; this is on top of the LHMC (Leith Hill Musical Competition) that he founded in 1905 and ran on the property, where he lived after the death of his father, that had belonged to his mother, Margaret Susan Wedgewood's family; later, in 1909, it became the LHMF[estival]. He composed things for it and conducted them as well as music by others. He was multi-tasking long before the term existed!; he just did whatever was needing to be done, but appears never to have been highly tense about it.

I had long believed that RVW was a highly under-appreciated composer, as well as somewhat misunderstood, & those concepts were hugely confirmed by this book; I had never imagined the breadth, depth, diversity, and extent of his works and his activities. He was also seen as old-fashioned, out-of-date, but that, too, is a misunderstanding of him. His works are in no way hide-bound, but neither are they in any way shockingly new. While they may occasionally resemble works of others, they are in no way copies thereof. There's an awful lot to learn about him! He is buried in Westminster Abbey, his memorial tile in the N. Choir aisle, "between those of Elgar and Stanford, a testament to the impact that he and his music had not only on British culture, but also the lives of countess friends and admirers. 'Great artist,' Boughton confirmed. 'Better still, and rarer, a Great man.'" (p. 218)

The text is complemented by a 16-pp. glossy-paper display of 34 plates of b&w, sepia, and color photos between pp. 168 & 169, and 4 Appendices, A – D: Calendar, List of Works, Personalia, & Select Bibliography, pp. 235-293. Notes are found on pp. 295-324, with 2 Indices: General (pp. 325-32) & Works, (pp. 333-39), all to make the book a useful research resource/tool as well.