Ralph Vaughan Williams

Chair of the VW Society gives presentation

Simon Coombs, the Chair of the Vaughan Williams Society, gave an extremely interesting and informative talk on the music of Vaughan Williams to a packed room at the last Society meeting on Monday.  Regarded as one of Britain’s great composers, he produced a wide range of music, including songs, symphonies, choral works, chamber music and works with a religious theme.  He was what one might call a ‘late developer’ not finding his voice until his ’30s (reminiscent of Bruckner).

Simon took us through his history starting with his childhood in Down Ampney and his later life in Dorking (Surrey) and Chelsea.  He showed promise at school, composing a short piece called ‘The Robin’ aged 6.  Later he went on to study under Parry and Max Bruch.  He spent time in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel who said of him ‘he was the only one of my students who doesn’t try to write my music’.

He was keenly interested in folk music and started to collect these in 1903.  He was not the first composer to be

Vaughan Williams

influenced by the folk song tradition (one thinks of Bartok) and much of his early work was founded on this tradition.  He was friendly with George Butterworth who shared his passion for English folk songs and who offered advice to VW in his early days including suggesting that he write a symphony.  It is a surprising fact but there are no performed symphonies by a British composer before VW and Elgar.  The suggestion by Butterworth is therefore something of a revolutionary suggestion.  Butterworth died tragically young in the Great War.  VW was keen to contribute to the war and served as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer.  Like many who served in the trenches, the War made a lasting impression including the loss of friends.

He was keen to popularise his music and started the Leith Hill Music Festival (near Dorking) in 1905 and which still thrives.  He had a huge output which included 9 symphonies.

Simon played a mixture of his works, some familiar, others less often heard.  These included the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; an extract from the Sea Symphony (1909); a song from 5 Mystical Songs; parts of the London Symphony (1913) and the Pastoral Symphony (1921) and from number 4 (1934).

Perhaps the work most recognisably as his is the Lark Ascending strongly influenced by his love of folk songs (1914).  Other pieces included an extract from the English Folk Song Suite (1923), Serenade to Music (1938) and from one of his operas Hugh the Drover.  He was approached by Muir Mathieson to compose the music for the film Thirty Ninth Parallel which he composed in a matter of weeks.

This was a brilliant start to the second half of the season.

Peter Curbishley

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