Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Arguably the most important English composer of his generation, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a key figure in 20th-century British music. He wrote music encompassing a huge range of genres, from works for stage, orchestra, band, choir, and chamber ensembles, to folk song arrangements, hymn tunes, carols, and songs, to scores for theatre, films, and radio. His works are characterized by a distinctive and emotionally powerful style that combines a reinvention and extension (rather than rejection) of developments in form and harmony in 19th century European art music with melodic writing shaped by the English folksong idiom. Beyond composition, he took on many roles during his life and career, including as conductor, teacher, and writer—fields in which his presence was deeply influential.
Born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire on October 12, 1872, Vaughan Williams learned to play violin (later switching to viola), piano, and organ from a young age. He went on to study music at the Royal College of Music (RCM) and at Trinity College, Cambridge, including composition with Hubert Parry, Charles Wood, and Charles Villiers Stanford, as well as with Max Bruch in Berlin (1897), and with Maurice Ravel in Paris (1908). He had long desired to be a composer but his progress was slow and arduous, inhibited, not least, by unsupportive mentors and teachers. Eventually, he found his personal voice, emerging fully in what became one of his masterpieces: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) for double string orchestra. By this point, he was also a leading activist in the collection of English folksong, and had established the Leith Hill Musical Festival, where he was principal conductor from 1905 to 1953.
After serving in WWI, Vaughan Williams’s musical career resumed, and during the interwar years, he rose to prominence as a teacher (he joined the RCM’s staff), and was in demand as a composer-conductor. His compositions from this period also reflected a renewed vigour in their quality and sheer variety, with simple songs completed alongside important large-scale works for the stage and symphonies for orchestra. Alongside this work, his activities as educator, music activist, and arts administrator also continued, through WWII and afterwards. He died in London on August 26, 1958, revered and beloved by English music-lovers.