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The man who set England to music
More than 40 years after his death, Vaughan Williams is increasingly being recognised as the unique musical voice of Englishness.

By: Simon Heffer

The image we have been left of Ralph Vaughan Williams could only be of an Englishman. He is middle-aged or elderly as when he wrote his finest music - and everything about him is heavy: his frame, the tweeds that clothe it (he was once described as "dressed as for stalking the folk-song to its home"), and the look of thoughtful reserve on his face.

If in our picture of him he is very old, he is crowned with a shock of thick hair of purest white, though his face, like an infant's, is unlined, and his eyes are of a pale but penetrating grey. There is something stark, but at the same time deeply benevolent, about a man who (as his friend and biographer Michael Kennedy put it) set out deliberately to turn himself into an English composer.

There were, of course, composers before him who were English by birth and upbringing - and there had been, on and off, for centuries. Of late, however, such men had written music whose inspiration was almost entirely German. What there had not been were composers who set out deliberately to write something that could be defined as English music, and which was not beholden to the Teutonic influence.

That is why Vaughan Williams was important: he, with his contemporary and friend Gustav Holst, decided to manufacture a distinctly English musical voice, as no one had done in modern times, and take English music back to its roots.

Throughout his career, and after his death, Vaughan Williams risked paying the price of insularity for his daring. Yet now, more than 40 years since his death, his work is widely appreciated abroad, in America as well as in Europe, as it was in his lifetime.

He is challenging Elgar's hitherto unquestioned supremacy as the leading composer of the English musical renaissance. Several recorded cycles of his nine symphonies are extant or in progress; his choral music, long dismissed as parochial and the province of amateur choirs, has undergone a revival and is now almost all available again on disc. Having suffered that traditional period of neglect that comes with the death of most composers, his music has steadily risen again, championed not least by conductors and musicians from outside the English tradition.

That Vaughan Williams became a composer was the result of a happy conjunction of inheritance and time. The affluence of his family, and an intellectualism inherited from both sides, allowed him to pursue a vocation that would make him no serious money until he was well into middle age.

He also grew up at a time when there was a new national enthusiasm for music, led by men of will and determination who were prepared to make whatever personal sacrifice was necessary to further the cause. With his sense of noblesse oblige and his educated vision, Vaughan Williams was a kindred spirit of these men.

He would come to write music that could legitimately be considered to be the work of a genius, but only after much slogging: but then this was a man who, in a proper English style, defined genius as "the right man in the right place at the right time".

He would become a symbol - in the view of many, the ultimate symbol - of the great renaissance in English music that can be dated from the opening of the Royal College of Music in London in 1883; and it was his good fortune to have the gifts and determination to compose in a self-created English style at a time when there was both a demand for, and an encouragement of, such a thing in his own country.

He was fortunate that the founding fathers of the English musical renaissance, such as Hubert Parry, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Sir George Grove - all associated with the RCM from its foundation - were making a serious English musical life possible through their teaching and inspiration, and were both consciously and unconsciously creating an English school. Scarcely less important, the activities of such men had, for the first time, made music seem a fit career for a gentleman.

In 1939, once war was declared, against an enemy Vaughan Williams had long since identified as evil, he threw himself into the effort against Hitler. At 67 he could not respond as he had in 1914 (when he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps). This time his contribution was made by taking in evacuees, collecting salvage, helping with the war savings campaign, giving over some of his land for allotments, and trying to find work for refugees.

He became a fanatical gardener, growing mountains of vegetables, and started to keep chickens. He had always liked his food - his dying at so great an age (at 85) was a standing rebuke to those who claim that such indulgence is a sure route to an early grave - and was determined that he and his would not go hungry, whatever Hitler might do to them.

In artistic matters, he recognised the usefulness of music in maintaining morale, and was one of those behind the idea and execution of Dame Myra Hess's lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery in London.

It was appropriate that, in this time of great national peril, the next of his works to be given a first British performance was his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, a short work for string orchestra and harp based on one of England's oldest folk-tunes, the one the composer claimed that, on first hearing it, the listener felt he had known all his life. It is a musical symbol of the continuity and values of England.

This was a war between civilisation and no civilisation; and the national consciousness that would be needed for Britain to survive and to win it could, the composer knew, be harnessed by just the common culture for which he had been evangelising for the previous 40 years.

As he was not occupied on active service, there would be no repeat of the hiatus in his creative life that had occurred during the Great War. His first project was to set some lines of Shelley's from Prometheus Unbound, a project in which he enlisted Ursula Wood, and which would be completed as Six Choral Songs. Once the initial shock of the wartime emergency wore off more performances of music were possible.

Meanwhile, he dug an air-raid shelter at The White Gates and sandbagged the house; the Battle of Britain would shortly take place in the skies above the Home Counties.

The war brought an exciting new departure for Vaughan Williams, and one that would influence his musical output for the rest of his life. One of his former pupils, Muir Mathieson, had made a big name for himself in the film world. He commissioned his old teacher to write the music for a Powell and Pressburger film, 49th Parallel. It was a high-quality production, and one whose ethical values will strongly have appealed to Vaughan Williams. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - the latter a Jewish refugee from Eastern Europe - had long been committed anti-Nazis, like Vaughan Williams, and their story depicted fanatical Nazi evil, and how justice eventually triumphs over it.

Included in the film were some of the leading actors of the day, such as Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Eric Portman, and it was a thinly disguised plea for the Americans to come into the war against Germany. Although he had to work quickly, since the film was already in production, and had to write to split-second timings, he flourished under these new conditions.

In one of his last public utterances, shortly before his death, he had said: "Bach was behind the times, Beethoven was ahead of them, and yet both were the greatest of composers. Modernism and conservation are irrelevant. What matters is to be true to oneself."

It is a tradition, at least with English composers, that a period of posthumous neglect sets in some time before rigor mortis. Elgar and Holst endured this before Vaughan Williams. Parry had an especially bad case, being routinely vilified by critics and teachers of music for the best part of 70 years after his death, before a proper reassessment and revival came in the 1980s and 1990s.

By comparison, Vaughan Williams got off lightly. There was a period of quietness for four or five years: but then the appearance of his widow's biography, and Michael Kennedy's book.

By the time of the centenary in 1972 Boult had undertaken another cycle of the symphonies, and Andr Previn had recorded his own. The centenary itself had a high profile; all nine symphonies were performed at the Proms, there was a special centenary concert on October 12, the BBC broadcast many of these performances, and the Post Office issued a commemorative stamp.

From then on the popularity of the composer, as marked by recordings of his works and public performances, continued to grow. Perhaps it was that his lack of association with the unfashionable parts of Britain's recent past, notably imperialism and reactionary politics, meant there were not the intellectual barriers between his music and a supposedly radical younger generation that Elgar, for example, seemed to provoke.

In so far as Vaughan Williams's music had a programme, it was one entirely relevant to the late 20th century: peace, natural beauty, the meaning of existence, the uncertainty of our spiritual life.

However, at over 40 years' remove from the man himself the work can be seen in its proper perspective; and appreciated, as it should principally be, for its sheer beauty and aesthetic force rather than for any "programme" or lack of it.

If in that beauty and force there are atavistic qualities that cause English listeners, at least, to feel a connection with an instinctual past and a common heritage, that is no more than the composer himself would have wanted.

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