Ralph Vaughan Williams

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, Ralph. b. Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, 12 October 1872; d. London, 26 August 1958. His father was vicar of Down Ampney, but he was raised at his mother’s family home at Leith Hill, Surrey, after his father’s death in 1875. He was educated at Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read history (MusB 1894; BA 1895), and then at the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Charles Wood*, Hubert Parry* and Charles Villiers Stanford*. The foremost English composer of his generation, he also worked as a free-lance writer, educator and conductor to promote a nationalist agenda of English musical reform. Seeking to liberate native music-making from an overdependence on continental European styles, he modelled his own compositions on Tudor and Jacobean works as well as on indigenous folk-song, which he also collected in the field. Before the First World War, in which he served, first in the Medical Corps and then in the Royal Artillery (which may have led to his later deafness), he had written some of his best-loved pieces, such as the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1909), A Sea Symphony (1909) and the Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912). His championing of the musical amateur was no less important: he wrote many works for non-professionals and conducted amateur groups like the London Bach Choir (1920-28) and the combined choirs of the Leith Hill Festival (1905-58). A much-loved national figure, he received the Order of Merit in 1935 (he had earlier refused a knighthood) and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Vaughan Williams had a life-long interest in the music of the church. Anthems, motets and service music date from all periods of his career, and a number of (non-liturgical) cantatas and oratorios employ Biblical texts. However, it was the hymn tune that occupied the central place in his affections. He knew hymns from childhood: his mother retained the practice of family singing after Sunday tea, and his four years as organist and choirmaster of St. Barnabas, South Lambeth (1895-99) gave him first-hand experience playing and selecting them for services. Nonetheless, when Percy Dearmer* approached him in 1904 about undertaking the musical editorship of a new hymn book, Vaughan Williams protested that he ‘knew very little’ about hymns, and accepted only when he learned that he had been recommended by Cecil Sharp* and Canon Henry Scott Holland* and that Walford Davies* would be offered the post if he refused (see R. Vaughan Williams, 1956). The hymnbook became EH (1906), and initiated a long partnership with Dearmer that also produced SofP (1925) and SofPE (1931), The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) and the revised EH (1933), as well as several smaller singing books derived from these publications. Martin Edward Fallas Shaw* served as co-editor for many of these projects.

Vaughan Williams’s dedication to hymnody had little to do with conventional religious faith. A convinced atheist at university, he only ‘later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism [and] was never a professing Christian’ (see U. Vaughan Williams, 1964). Rather, his attraction to hymnody lay in the opportunities it presented to forward his English agenda. Concerned that English composers’ grounding in continental European styles was at least partially responsible for the ‘languishing and sentimental hymn tunes’ of the Victorian period, he sought to replace them with music that was ‘vigorous and bright’ (see R. Vaughan Williams, 1933). EH accordingly omitted ‘enervating’ hymn tunes by Dykes*, Stainer*, Barnby* and others popularized by A&M, and inserted in their stead more straightforward melodies and arrangements by English Tudor and Restoration composers such as Thomas Tallis* and Henry Lawes*. More controversially, he also adapted native folk-songs for hymn use, drawing on traditional tunes from John Playford*’s The English Dancing Master (first published 1651) and Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time (1855-59) as well as from collections recently made by himself and by his contemporaries, Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood. The result was bracing hymn tunes like KINGSFOLD (adapted from the folk-song ‘Dives and Lazarus’) and KINGS LYNN (adapted from ‘Van Dieman’s Land’) that capture an identifiably ‘English’ flavour by accentuating the unusual modality and scalar eccentricities of the original folk-song sources. Similar characteristics inform a handful of Vaughan Williams’s original hymn tunes, including KING’S WESTON and WHITE GATES; others, like OAKLEY (written for SofP), are clearly modelled on English Renaissance music.

But the innovations of EH and its sister publications are not strictly musical. If Vaughan Williams lavished so much attention on hymn tunes it was less because he wished to steer public taste away from continental musical styles than that he wanted to bring the English into a more profound relation with their own heritage. Basing hymn tunes on native folk-songs and compositions was only one way to achieve this; drawing on ‘outside’ sources that had made their way into the English tradition was another. Thus he included in his hymnbooks music from the Genevan Psalter* and early German psalters as well as Lutheran chorales and selected folk-songs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales (his use of Welsh hymn tunes in EH is remarkable). His intent, however, was not merely to reinstate a few old favourites, but also to introduce new material from these sources—tunes like LASST UNS ERFREUEN and SLANE that have subsequently become staples of English hymnody. Yet other French, German and American sources, generally neglected by English editors, yielded classics like ORIENTIS PARTIBUS, RESONET IN LAUDIBUS and CRADLE SONG, and he even included a number of folk-songs from continental nations. Far from viewing EH as an exclusively ‘English’ collection, in fact, Vaughan Williams conceived of it as a ‘thesaurus of all the finest hymn tunes in the world’ (see R. Vaughan Williams, 1956). Its ‘nationalism’ consisted not in its narrow embrace of native music but rather in its wide-ranging assimilation of melodies from throughout western Europe that were intended to inspire and uplift Englishmen and women of every generation. Such eclecticism, which was carried even further in SofP, was clearly influenced by the broadminded ecumenism of Dearmer and indeed of the Church of England generally in the first half of the 20th century.

Vaughan Williams’s project of English musical reform was thus as much cultural as it was stylistic—perhaps even more so, since his broadly social goals sometimes prompted him to modify his compositional and aesthetic inclinations. Sensitive to the limited musical ability of church congregations, for example, he actually blunted the characteristically ‘English’ features of the great majority of his folk-song adaptations, thus bringing them more into line with mainstream hymnody (KINGSFOLD and KINGS LYNN, discussed above, are thus atypical of his general practice). Conscious of the overwhelming popularity of Victorian hymnody, Vaughan Williams also embraced what he deemed to be its better examples: he included a surprisingly large number of them not only in EH (where he was under ecclesiastical pressure to do so) but also in SofP, where he had freer editorial rein. Most tellingly, many of his original hymn tunes are distinctly based on Victorian models. SINE NOMINE and SALVE FESTA DIES employ a processional tread that has roots in the militant triumphalism of Victorian theology, while the lyrical melody and elaborate part-writing of DOWN AMPNEY can be traced to those hymn tunes of Dykes and Samuel Sebastian Wesley* that derive from the 19th-century part-song.

Ultimately, Vaughan Williams’s embrace of the hymn tune, like his nationalism generally, was rooted in his championship of the musical amateur. Keenly aware that hymn-singing offered for many church-goers the only opportunity for music-making they had each week, he determined to give them the best, irrespective of agenda or ideology. Admittedly, it was he who decided just what the ‘best’ consisted of, but his judgments were informed by genuinely democratic and populist principles. He pitched tunes as low as possible, insisted on slower tempos, and generally placed the needs of the congregation over those of the trained choir by encouraging unison singing and providing a wide variety of arrangements and accompaniments—even in some cases for individual hymn tunes. These innovations have subsequently been adapted by hymnbooks throughout the English-speaking world, as have the new standards of editorial clarity (the identification of sources, versions, alterations, etc., printed with each tune) that he introduced. For these and many other reasons, notably his single-handed revival of psalmody and of the ancient church practice of adapting traditional music for hymn use, Vaughan Williams stands as one of the towering figures of 20th-Century hymnody.

Julian Onderdonk

Further Reading

  1. R. Vaughan Williams, ‘The Music,’ in The English Hymnal with Tunes, rev. ed. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. viii-xv.
  2. ———, ‘Some Reminiscences of the English Hymnal’ in The First Fifty Years: A Brief Account of The English Hymnal from 1906 to 1956 (London, Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 2-5.
  3. Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1964).
  4. Nicholas Temperley, The Music of the English Parish Church, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979)
  5. M. Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, revised edition (London, Oxford University Press, 1980)
  6. R. Vaughan Williams, ‘The Influence of Folk-Song on the Music of the Church’ in National Music and Other Essays, Second Edition (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 74-82.
  7. Alain Frogley, ‘Constructing Englishness in Music: National Character and the Reception of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ in Vaughan Williams Studies, ed. Frogley (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 1-22.
  8. John Bawden, ‘Vaughan Williams and the Hymnals: A New Perspective,’ in Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society 29 (February 2004), pp. 4-11.
  9. Alan Luff, ed., Strengthen For Service: 100 Years of The English Hymnal (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2005).
  10. Alain Frogley, ‘Vaughan Williams’, NGII.
  11. ———, ‘Williams, Ralph Vaughan (1872-1958)’, ODNB.


[Notes: There is no apostrophe in KINGS LYNN in EH. In some books one was added later, as in NEH. Readers interested in the influence of RVW on the music of the Episcopal Church, USA, are referred to an article by Matthew Hoch in The Hymn Society Bulletin 307, Volume 23 No 2 (Spring 2021), pp. 39-48). Ed.]

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