Vaughan Williams, Ralph


Vaughan Williams, Ralph
(1872-1958)
   One of the most important figures in the British classical musical scene in the 20th century, Vaughan Williams was also the one who made most use of a knowledge of folk-song in his compositions. By 1903, Vaughan Williams was already aware of folk-song, having access to the publications of Frank *Kidson, Sabine *Baring-Gould, and Lucy *Broadwood, and indeed he was already lecturing on the subject. A trip to Essex in December of that year introduced him to Mr Pottipher of Ingrave, who sang him the song 'Bushes and Briars', which immediately fired Vaughan Williams's interest and enthusiasm, and opened his eyes to the real thing. On subsequent trips to Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey, Hampshire, Herefordshire, and elsewhere in the country, he had amassed the bulk of his collection of 810 songs by 1913. Vaughan Williams was typical of his generation when it came to collecting procedures. He was primarily interested in the tunes and often failed to note more than the first verse of a text. He did not try to note the whole repertoire of a singer, but concentrated on those he found interesting, and neither did he record any details of the singer's life or attitudes to singing beyond the bare name, age, and occupation. Collecting songs at that time was an arduous business, getting to remote villages (often by bicycle), spending hours searching out singers, noting tunes and words by hand in the open air or pub taprooms.
   The fact that Vaughan Williams, more than any of his contemporaries, used the tunes he collected in his own works has been labelled as a form of cultural theft, but there is no doubt that he felt this musical heritage was important for the future health of society and the overwhelming importance of returning these tunes to the people, and this was his way of doing so - as a composer and musician. He felt he was on a rescue mission, and, of course, he was right. That Vaughan Williams was deeply affected, as a composer, by the songs he found is well known. Their tunes turn up directly in over 30 of his pieces, made a direct impact on his work on carols, and their more subtle influence can be seen and felt in many others. He constructed a theory of 'national music' based largely on his experience of folk-song:
   Folk-song is not a cause of national music, it is a manifestation of it. The cultivation of folk-songs is only one aspect of the desire to found an art on the fundamental principles which are essential to its well-being. National music is not necessarily folksong; on the other hand folk-song is, by nature, necessarily national. (First published in 1934, reprinted in National Music and Other Essays (2nd edn., 1986), 63)
   Although his collecting days ended in the 1920s, Vaughan Williams maintained an active interest in traditional music for the rest of his life. He played an important part in both the *English Folk Dance Society and the *Folk-Song Society and was instrumental in arranging their amalgamation in 1932. The Library at *Cecil Sharp House, headquarters of the *English Folk Dance and Song Society, is named after him.
   Some of the songs he collected were published in the *Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Folk-Songs from the Eastern Counties (1908), Eight Traditional English Carols (1919), Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire (with E. M. Leather, 1920), and see also, Roy Palmer, Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1983); R. Vaughan Williams and A. L. Lloyd, The Penguin Book of Engish Folk Songs (1959); Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw, The Oxford Book of Carols (1928). Articles about Vaughan Williams appear in Folk Music Journal, 2:3 (1972), English Dance & Song, 34:3 (1972), and 45:1 (1983). His own views are presented in National Music and Other Essays (1963; 2nd edn., 1986).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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