Why Ralph Vaughan Williams matters today

Rosie Pentreath 27 July 2022

For the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams's birth, we speak to violinist Tasmin Little about the British composer's legacy in classical music

“There are many pieces of music by Vaughan Williams that take me back to my childhood, like old friends,” Tasmin Little tells Reader’s Digest.

“In very early recollections of listening to music when I was a child growing up, one of the first pieces I remember hearing was Vaughan Williams’ 'Fantasia on Greensleeves',” the award-winning violinist confides.

“Whenever I hear that haunting opening, I’m taken right back to my parents’ flat, so I have a very personal connection with it.”

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the English composer, whose music is loved by so many.

Who was Ralph Vaughan Williams?

Vaughan Williams, who is known for orchestral works like "The Lark Ascending" and "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis", as well his monumental choral music output, and film scores including 49th Parallel and Scott of the Antarctic, has a legacy that reaches even further than the enduring pieces of music that he wrote.

Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 in Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, the son of Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams, and Margaret Vaughan Williams née Wedgwood, who was the niece of Sir Charles Darwin.

Vaughan Williams was introduced to music in 1878 when he began piano lessons with his aunt, Sophy Wedgwood, and he went on to study the organ, harmony and composition at the Royal College of Music in London.

"He must be rated as one of our most important composers ever"

Early in his career, Vaughan Williams made a living as a church organist and choirmaster, and through writing and editing content for The Grove Dictionary of Music and the Purcell Society’s Welcome Songs.

He also collected folk songs, something that would become a big part of the Vaughan Williams legacy alongside the sublime music he wrote.

He composed songs, choral pieces, chamber pieces and orchestral works, and his first symphony, A Sea Symphony, was performed at the Leeds Festival in 1910.

“His impact on the musical life of this country, and the legacy that he left behind, is huge. That’s why he must be rated as one of our most important composers ever,” Little emphasises.

Nurturing a nation's love of music

Black and white photo of Elizabeth Maconchy's side profile with her hair up and wearing glassesMany of Vaughan Williams' protégés were women, including composers like Elizabeth Maconchy, Grace Williams and Ruth Gipps

“It wasn’t just the music that he created in all the different genres—Vaughan Williams was a very influential person in musical life in the UK,” Little continues.

He taught a lot of composers, including a lot of female composers when, says Little, “it wasn’t fashionable to be a female composer.”

Students of Vaughan Williams include Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Franz Reizenstein, Grace Williams and Ruth Gipps.

"Beethoven continues to speak to people centuries after writing this music, and Vaughan Williams is another such composer"

There was also the legacy of Vaughan Williams’ work on The English Hymnal, the Oxford University Press collection of hundreds of “the best hymns in the English language”.

Ralph Vaughan Williams selected and edited the music for the collection in 1904, after being approached by Percy Dearmer who conceived of the project.

“It provided music for the wider public, and brought Vaughan Williams’ work to everyday people, every week in their church,” Little explains.

“It’s just one of the things [from Vaughan Williams] that’s part of a thread that will hopefully continue to run throughout musical life for many decades, and maybe centuries, beyond where we are right now,” she adds.

The violinist, who has been performing and recording works by Vaughan Williams, places him in the category of composers who will never be obsolete.

Beethoven is one of those who continue to speak to people centuries after writing this music, and I think Vaughan Williams is another such composer,” Little says.

What style of music did Ralph Vaughan Williams write?

And what of the music itself?

“It’s always difficult to sum up any composer, but particularly one who has such a huge variety of styles,” Little reflects.

Vaughan Williams wrote in many different genres, from chamber music, to choral music, to his nine symphonies, to stage works, and his prolific output in music for radio and film.

“There’s such a huge variety of output,” agrees Little, “but I think one of the connections between all of these different styles of music is the imagination and the expressive beauty of harmony.

“There’s an emotional directness, which means that it doesn’t matter what your age is, or how much you know about music, the chances are this music is going to speak to you because it is so approachable and so honest, and so direct.”

Vaughan Williams was the student of another revered British composer, Hubert Parry.

In his autobiography the composer wrote of his teacher: “We pupils of Parry have, if we have been wise, inherited from him the great English choral tradition, which Tallis passed on to Byrd, Byrd to Gibbons, Gibbons to Purcell, Purcell to Battishill and Greene, and they in their turn through the Wesleys, to Parry. He has passed on the torch to us and it is our duty to keep it alight.”

The thread of this tradition is apparent in all the music Vaughan Williams wrote. For Little, it’s all about the interesting and ancient harmonies the composer incorporates in his music.

“The modal harmonies [he uses] go back to old modes which are some of the earliest forms of harmony in classical music,” she explains.

“And they are often the basis of folk music too, so they’re harmonies we know, and harmonies we understand innately as being a part of our culture; part of our English heritage, if you like.”

The fascinating thing about Vaughan Williams’ music, for Little, is that it’s also infused with influences from elsewhere. “I think that’s why his style is so unique,” she says.

She finds a Germanic feel in it, as well as moments akin to turn-of-the-century French Impressionism.

Why is Vaughan Williams important today?

Skylark bird taking flight in grey sky"The Lark Ascending" was based on a poem by George Meredith, which describes a lark soaring through a summer sky

Pieces like "The Lark Ascending" and the "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" are like nothing else written, and endure as some of the most popular and revered orchestral pieces in the canon.

It’s difficult to think of another violinist as closely associated with "The Lark" as Tasmin Little.

"They would like to die to this music. It represents something quite intangible but very moving"

“'The Lark' captures the beauty of the countryside and the beauty of nature,” she says fondly. “Many people see this bird as a free spirit, but also associate themselves with this notion of soaring, ever higher and higher towards heaven.

“For those who want to feel there is a spiritual element, even a religious element, to this piece, there is something about our souls in it: about hopefully flying higher and higher, and hoping to achieve something heavenly, and to understand what heaven can be.”

The piece’s legacy is represented by the number of people who request it to be played at their funeral.

“They would like to die to this music,” Little says, profoundly. “It represents something quite intangible but very moving for so many people.”

2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birth, with special performances, recordings and events planned throughout the year to celebrate the composer’s remarkable legacy.

Visit the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society's website to find out more.

Read more: The evolution of music: The earliest score to classical music

Read more: Greatest insults in classical music

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter