Vaughan Williams: Composer, Radical, Patriot—A Biography

Vaughan Williams: Composer, Radical, Patriot—A Biography
By Keith Alldritt
Crowood Press Ltd.
A review by R.C. Speck

No discussion of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams can go far without mentioning that he was British. In a sense, he was the quintessential British composer: he relied as much on British folk songs, liturgical music, and poetry as he did on the Germanic Classical music traditions which dominated his day over a century ago. With biographer Keith Alldritt’s help, we can all imagine ourselves being British when listening to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Alldritt scrupulously chronicles Vaughan Williams’s life while keeping his subject’s story ensconced in the greater political turmoil of his time. Vaughan Williams’s family could boast ancestry stretching back to the Norman Invasion in 1066 as well as blood relations to Charles Darwin. Unlike most leading conductors, Vaughan Williams was an unimpressive music student but stuck with it out of sheer passion.

During the fin de siècle times of the late 19th century, he made the most of his lessons with Maurice Ravel, his friendship with Gustav Holst, and his days combing the English countryside for forgotten folk music. His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Lark Ascending are still favorites. After a stint during the First World War as an ambulance driver, Vaughan Williams began to crowd the ranks of his country’s leading composers with much-loved works such as his Third Symphony (the Pastoral), his opera Riders to the Sea, and his oratorio Sancta Civitas. In nearly in all cases, his music reflected his concern for his country during tumultuous times.

Alldritt presents all the pulsing details of Vaughan Williams’s marriage to Adeline Fisher. Whenever the poor woman wasn’t nursing an incapacitated relative, she was often very ill herself. It’s with this sensitive understanding that Alldritt portrays Vaughan Williams’s semi-secret love for his mistress Ursula Wood whom he met in the late 1930s when he was in his sixties and she in her twenties. After Adeline died in 1951, he married Ursula and remained married to her until his death in 1958.

Alldritt describes how indefatigable Ralph Vaughan Williams was. In 1948, as a septuagenarian, Vaughan Williams gave us his Sixth Symphony with its striking use of the saxophone, recalling the blues. Later, as Vaughan Williams attained living legend status in England, his output never flagged. His last three symphonies were written while he was in his eighties, as was his curiously original Tuba Concerto. His love for music had him conducting up until the very end.

Alldritt could not have found a better way to end this engrossing tribute to Ralph Vaughan Williams than with Ursula describing how she held the composer in her arms as he died peacefully and then opened the window to play his pastoral symphony into the still morning.

This book review appeared in the winter 2016–17 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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