Ralph Vaughan Williams

1872-1958. English composer. Son of a clergyman in the west of England, he studied at Cambridge, at the Royal College of Music, and with Bruch in Berlin. For a time he was a church organist, but soon gave it up and devoted himself primarily to composition. He was noted as a lecturer, a folksong collector, and a choral conductor. He was a deep student of Elizabethan music, which was one of the contributing factors to his striking and original personal style. Like Schütz,* in his maturity he took time out to study with an acknowledged master, Maurice Ravel.

Although his personal views bordered on agnosticism, he was the only major twentieth-century composer for whom religious music has been a highly significant part of his total output throughout his career, from his early and unconventional oratorio, The Holy City, to his large Christmas cantata, Hodie, written at eighty-two. He was musical editor of The English Hymnal (1906, rev. 1933), to which he contributed such stirring original tunes as Sine Nomine and King's Weston, together with many adaptations of folk melodies, and many Welsh hymntunes previously little known outside of Wales. He also shared in editing Songs of Praise and The Oxford Book of Carols. Although his number of anthems is not great, these are fresh and new in approach. His festival setting for congregation, choir, organ, and full orchestra of “All hail the power of Jesus' name” is the most ambitious of all his pieces based on hymns. The unaccompanied Mass in G minor is an outstanding work. There are several compositions based on Pilgrim's Progress, culminating in the fullscale opera of 1951, which he called A Morality.

While not strictly church music, there are various other works that draw their inspiration from Christian themes: the Mystical Songs on poems by George Herbert, the Tallis Fantasia for string orchestra, the Fantasia on Old 104th Psalm Tune for piano, chorus, and orchestra are representative. It would not be too much to say that Vaughan Williams has been the greatest single force in Protestant music in the English-speaking world thus far in the present century. He is also the composer of nine symphonies, a variety of concertos, orchestral works, operas, and chamber music.

See M. Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1964), and U.V. Williams, R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1964).