Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 3

WEDNESDAY, March 25, 2020

Vaughn Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958)…

I don’t even know where to start when talking about this man.But let’s start with music first. This is his “Pastoral” Symphony No. 3. I was looking for something different to listen to, decades ago, and someone recommended this to me. It takes me to a different world, and I don’t even know how to describe this world, but I like it – very much.

A good human being…

There have been so many narcissistic composers who have written brilliant music but who seemed to care little about other human beings, and of course there have been many fine human beings who were never more than mediocre composers, but Vaughn Williams, who might have been known as  “just a good man” if he had not been a musical genius, was a late bloomer who eventually gained the recognition of the whole world.

He did not really find his own voice until his late thirties. Eventually he became one of the best-known British composers, noted for his emotional range as well as his unique voice.

Early life…

In 1878, at the age of five, Vaughan Williams began receiving piano lessons from his aunt. He also studied violin and  collected traditional folk songs from an early age. They went on to inspire much of his later music. In 1880, when he was eight, he took a correspondence course in music from Edinburgh University and passed. To me that means that he worked mostly on his own. He got help, but not the kind of help you would think such a talented young boy would normally get.

In September 1883 he went as a boarder to Field a preparatory school in Rottingdean on the south coast of England. In 1888 he organized a concert in the school hall, which included a performance of his G major Piano Trio (now lost) with the composer as violinist.

At the Royal College of Music…

Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music in London where Gustav Holst and Leopold Stokowski were fellow students. He also spent a short time studying in Berlin with Max Bruch. He and Holst (The Planets) were soon best friends and remained so until Holst’s death in 1934.

A religious background…

His father, Arthur, was the vicar of All Saints church in Down Ampney but died when Ralph was less than three years old, and he went on to first become an atheist and later a gentle agnostic. Yet Vaughan Williams edited The English Hymnal in 1904 and composed some fine Christian choral music.

A committed liberal…

The composer came from a privileged background, but he  worked all his life for for progressive causes and found small-mindedness puzzling. He viewed music as being for everyone rather than for just the elite.

Vaughan Wiliams was a student of Ravel…

He studied orchestration in Paris with Ravel, which lead indirectly to a great output of some of his best music. A Sea Symphony and the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis were composed in 1910.

Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis…

He discovered theme for A Theme of Thomas Tallis, when he was commissioned to put together the 1906 edition of the English Hymnal. His orchestration of it has remained one of his most popular pieces.

The Lark Ascending…

Vaughan Williams’ most popular piece, The Lark Ascending, was written in 1914 but the outbreak of World War I delayed its premiere. It was first performed in 1921 by the violinist Marie Hall, the woman for whom it was written.

Vaughan Williams in WWI…

He was aged 41 when World War I began, and that war had a lasting emotional effect on him. He served in France and Salonika. Prolonged exposure to gunfire caused ear damage that eventually lead  to severe deafness towards the end of his life.

English Folk Songs Suite…

Vaughan Williams was greatly interested in military bands, and in 1923 he composed the English Folk Songs Suite for them. This together with two similar suites written by his close friend Holst combine for three of the most important standard compositions for bands today in the US as well as elsewhere.

He just kept on composing…

In 1943 he conducted the premiere of his Symphony No.5 with London Philharmonic Orchestra, dedicated to Sibelius. He was already 70, so many assumed this would be his last major work, but he went on to write, among other things, four more symphonies.

Ursula Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams…

Vaughan Williams was married first to Adeline Fisher, with whom he had no children. After her death in 1951, he married poet Ursula Wood, who was several decades younger.

Final days…

Vaughan Williams was still composing great music into his 80s. At the age of 85, he was set to supervise the first recording of his Ninth Symphony with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. But his death on 26 August 1958, the night before the recording sessions were to begin, prompted the conductor to announce to the musicians that their performance would be a memorial to the composer.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ popularity increases…

the popularity of Vaughan Williams has grown steadily each year with The Lark Ascending often topping the annual Hall of Fame poll from 2007 onward.

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1 thought on “Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 3

  1. The title and music gave me a feeling of peacefulness and quiet contemplation. I was quite surprised to learn that this is actually about a time of war.

    “Vaughan Williams emphasized, however, that the work is “not really Lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted”[5] (i.e., English pastoral scenery); its reference is to the fields of France during World War I, where the composer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps.”

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