'An adventurous, unmistakably English composer with a distinct voice of his own. The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on 'Greensleeves' and Tallis Fantasia are amongst the most popular works by any British composer, but it is in his nine symphonies that we feel his true substance.' Gramophone Magazine
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 at Down Ampney, a village near Cricklade in Gloucestershire where his father was a vicar. He composed his first work at the age of six and learned the piano, organ and violin as a child. In 1887 he went to Charterhouse, transferring to the viola with great pleasure, where some of his music was performed at a school concert, and from there to the Royal College of Music to study composition with Parry. After two years he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read history and music. He returned to the college in 1895 as a pupil of Stanford and began his lifelong friendship with another student, Gustav Holst. They shared a determination to be `English composers' and candidly dissected each other's efforts to find an individual style while at the same time encouraging each other.
At the turn of the century Vaughan Williams was known only as composer of a few songs, although one of them, Linden Lea, soon became a favourite with singers, and the Stevenson cycle Songs of Travel (1904) earned him a bigger reputation. From 1902 he was deeply involved in collecting English folk songs. Like many others, he believed that industrialisation might cause the country's songs to be lost and he acted rather like an archaeologist in his determination to preserve what he could (over 800 folk-songs) of this heritage. From 1904 to 1906 he also edited the music of The English Hymnal, himself providing several memorable tunes.
Although a short setting of Whitman, Toward the Unknown Region, was well received at the 1907 Leeds Festival, Vaughan Williams was dissatisfied with his work and went for three months to Paris in 1908 for an intensive period of study with Ravel. So effective was this that on his return to England he began to write music of originality and power in an unmistakably individual style. Thus the G minor String Quartet, the `Shropshire Lad' song-cycle On Wenlock Edge and the great Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for strings were all composed between 1908 and 1910. He also composed delightful incidental music for Aristophanes' The Wasps and completed his large-scale Whitman choral work, A Sea Symphony, which was the outstanding success of the 1910 Leeds Festival. By now he was the acknowledged leader of the post-Elgar generation.
A London Symphony followed in 1914, the year in which, although 42 years of age, he joined the Army, serving throughout the First World War in France and Salonika. On his return he gave expression to the emotional experience of the war not in an angry outburst but in the reflective yet ominous quietude of A Pastoral Symphony, sketched in France in 1916 and in reality an orchestral requiem. At the same time came the one-act opera The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, part of his lifelong preoccupation with Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and incorporated in 1951 into the full-scale opera (or `morality') of that name, and the Mass in G minor for unaccompanied choir, in which he again seemed to reach across the centuries to the era of Byrd and Tallis while remaining firmly anchored in the 20th century.
His first opera, which he had completed in 1914 and put away until the war was over, was Hugh the Drover, set in the Cotswolds during the Napoleonic Wars and making use of some folk-songs from his own and others' collections. This was first performed in 1924. A year later he completed the short and incandescent oratorio Sancta Civitas, his own favourite among his choral works and a remarkable example of the concentrated power which his work had by now attained. The contrast between the lyrical charm of Hugh the Drover and the fierce blaze of Sancta Civitas is the contrast between pre- and post-1914 England, but the ballet Old King Cole of 1923 was a further lighthearted excursion into a seam mined from folk-song and dance.
Between 1926 and 1939, three more operas were composed, Sir John in Love, his treatment of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, The Poisoned Kiss, almost a musical, and the grim one-act opera Riders to the Sea, a masterly setting of Synge's play about Aran fisherfolk. A Blake masque for dancing, Job, was written in 1930 and became acknowledged both as a concert hall masterpiece and a landmark in the history of British dancing. In 1935 came the angry Symphony No 4 in F minor, which seemed to reflect a world drifting towards another world war, although that was not the composer's intention.
In 1942, when he celebrated his 70th birthday, he was completing his Fifth Symphony, music which in its beneficence sounded to some listeners like a summing-up, a Nunc Dimittis. But Vaughan Williams was in no mood for farewells, for since 1940 he had been enjoying the novelty of composing film music. There were 15 more years of prolific composition to follow, including four symphonies (among them the Sinfonia Antarctica of 1952-3, a re-working of music for the film Scott of the Antarctic), the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, produced at Covent Garden in 1951, some choral works and concertos, a violin sonata and several songs. In addition he went to the United States to give lectures, continued to conduct at the annual Leith Hill Festival and elsewhere, and attended concerts, plays or operas almost every night of his life up to its sudden end on 26 August 1958. He personified the pioneering spirit of English music in the 20th century and was an inspiring encourager of the young. He refused all honours except the O.M. and his musical creed was that `every composer cannot expect to have a worldwide message, but he may reasonable expect to have a special message for his own people'.