Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Ralph Vaughan Williams OM (12 October 1872 - 26 August 1958)

An influential British composer, conductor, and organist, Williams was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, to Margaret Susan Wedgwood (1843 - 1937) and the Rev. Arthur Vaughan Williams, a rector. His mother was the great-grand-daughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood. The family also was related to the Darwins, Charles being a great-uncle.

Williams, whose first name was often pronounced "rafe", was born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class.


According to Dan Barker, Williams was one of many major musicians who were atheists - he cites information found in the biography by his wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams, R. V. W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 1988):

“There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass,” Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams said. Indeed, the prolific British composer who helped compile The English Hymnal and who wrote religious music that is performed in liturgies and worship services around the world was himself not a believer. “Although a declared agnostic,” his wife Ursula wrote of Ralph, “he was able, all through his life, to set to music words in the accepted terms of Christian revelation as if they meant to him what they must have meant to George Herbert or to Bunyan.”
“He had been confirmed at Charterhouse,” she reports, “taking it as a matter of course in his school career, and he continued to go to church fairly regularly ‘so as not to upset the family.’ This attitude did not affect his love of the Authorized version of the Bible. The beauty of the idiom of the Jacobean English was established in his mind long before he went away to school and, like the music of Bach, remained as one of his essential companions through life. He was far too deeply absorbed by music to feel any need of religious observance. He was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian.”
Ralph’s grandmother was a sister of Charles Darwin. As a child, he spent considerable time in his famous uncle’s home in Down. Learning about The Origin of Species, he asked his mother what it was about. She answered:
The Bible says that God made the world in six days, Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.
At Cambridge, Ralph spent more time with music than religious duties. “In those days attendance at Chapel was compulsory,” Ursula writes, “and one morning when Ralph’s absence had been noted he was sent for by authority:
“ ‘I did not see you in Chapel this morning, Mr. Vaughan Williams.’
“ ‘No, Sir.’
“ ‘Perhaps, however, you were in the organ loft?’
“ ‘Yes, Sir, I was.’
“ ‘Well, you can pray as well in the organ loft as in any other part of the Chapel.’
“ ‘Yes, Sir—but I didn’t.'
Just as the tune of Greensleeves has been used as a dance, a hymn, and a political ballad, music itself is neither religious nor nonreligious. While compiling the English Hymnal in his early 30s, finding lyrics in want of a melody, “some tunes he wrote himself but these he did not sign and they appeared anonymously in the first edition. He searched for the best versions of the older tunes, and he adapted folk songs, continuing the ancient practice of the Church of taking secular music and using it for her own purposes.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s real world was artistic, not supernatural. Some of his best friends were the dancer Isadora Duncan and the composer Maurice Ravel, both nonbelievers. He did not think art had to point to anything beyond itself. His widow insists: “He was passionately anxious to discourage the critics from inventing ‘meanings.’ He would have liked to print Mendelssohn’s saying that ‘the meaning of music is too precise for words’ on every concert programme at which his works were played. He could not stop the questions and, rightly or wrongly, he never allowed the idea that lay behind the last movement of this [Sixth] symphony to be known to the critics who speculated on its historical and philosophical origin. Yet, as silence followed the final whisper of the last notes, it seemed as if the whole audience must guess the riddle:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep . . .
If critics insist on searching for “meaning” in this symphony, they will spot a denial of the afterlife.

Last Days

Vaughan Williams, whose secular life was simply “rounded with a sleep,” added hundreds of songs, compositions, including the popular The Lark Ascending, and nine symphonies to the world’s treasure of music.

Ralph’s last day, at the age of 86, was spent at the piano with a composer friend, discussing music. “It was all very ordinary, usual,” his wife reports, “and like many other nights had been and we did not guess that before dawn death, not sleep, would claim him.”