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Vaughan Williams: not simply a nostalgic nationalist

Ralph Vaughan Williams iin 1956. Credit: Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty

Ralph Vaughan Williams iin 1956. Credit: Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty

January 8, 2019   5 mins

When Daniel Barenboim used his appearance at the 2017 BBC Proms to lash out against Brexit, he subverted the common view of Sir Edward Elgar, composer of Pomp and Circumstance, as an arch patriot. “Elgar makes the best case against Brexit,” he said, “because he was a pan-European composer.”

This chimes with an all-too-familiar sneering attitude towards any art born in Britain – and England in particular. By praising Elgar for taking his lead from the Continent, Barenboim was drawing an implicit – and negative – contrast with those who found – and find – their inspiration closer to home.

Like, for example, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). He was a composer who sought to forge a distinctive English or British music from the folk songs ​and popular tunes​ ​of ordinary people, from the modal harmonies of church music and early English composers such as Henry Purcell and Thomas Tallis.

Vaughan Williams himself heard enough of​ the Barenboim​ ​view in his own day, ​writing​ in 1941 of how ​“the attitude of foreign to English musicians is unsympathetic, self-opinionated and pedantic. They believe that their tradition is the only one (this is specially true of the Viennese) and that anything that is not in accordance with that tradition is ‘wrong’ and arises from insular ignorance.”

Nowadays, Vaughan Williams is still routinely dismissed as a parochial, nostalgic, backward​-looking​ ​nationalist – a kind of musical Brexit. The Lark Ascending, his little song of freedom for violin and string orchestra, conjures particular sniffs of derision from those who see themselves on a higher plain.

In this way, Vaughan Williams serves as a sort of signpost in our culture wars, to declare which side we are on. For some he is a positive, someone rooted in his community and who saw this as a foundation of the good life and of great art. Others see in the same what they are most against.

And yet Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Roy Hattersley, Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd and Bernard Ingham are all admirers, having selected his music among their Desert Island Discs. Jeremy Corbyn turned to Vaughan Williams’s symphonies during the 2017 General Election. So who can claim him as their own?

Vaughan Williams was a nationalist and anything but narrow-minded. His first love was Bach. He travelled to Berlin to study with Max Bruch and later to Paris to learn from the great Maurice Ravel, who became a good friend. His was a nationalism far from what we would recognise as such today, though. As he said: “Artistic nationalism goes hand in hand with international unity … where every nation and every community will bring to the common fund that which they, and they only, can create”.1

This pursuit of a definably English musical language led Vaughan Williams and his close friend, Gustav Holst, to travel the countryside in the early 20th​ Century trying to find songs that were then disappearing, with Vaughan Williams alone collecting more than 800 songs and variants. The two friends also gave a nudge to preserve musical traditions elsewhere, ​encouraging the ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey​ to record everything he could in Africa before it was lost to the modern world (Tracey ended up recording 35,000 tracks in 18 countries over 50 years).

Rejecting the idea that he was a nostalgic nationalist, some anti-Brexit campaigners are keen to claim him. They note how he was a leading figure in the UK-based Federal Union, founded in 1938. As he wrote: ​

“I believe in a Federal Union of free peoples under a common government elected by and responsible to the people for their common affairs, with national self-government for national affairs as a first step towards democratic self-government for the prevention of war, the creation of prosperity and the preservation and promotion of individual liberty.”2

So, while it is true he supported a​ ​European Union, his democratic vision and keenness to preserve national distinctiveness doesn’t entirely match the current EU project.

On the touchstone subject of immigration, he was ​heavily involved​ in organising for refugee musicians and others from Nazi Germany to settle in Britain, but was concerned that Austrians in particular might come to overwhelm and dominate British musical life. ​He said​: “The great thing which frightens me in the late peaceful invasion of this country by Austria is that it will entirely devour the tender little flower of our English culture.” It is not much of a stretch to imagine him being concerned about this happening on a much wider scale now, allied to his passion for protecting the countryside from ugly urban sprawl.

We can, it seems, all find something to like about this man. Staunch Brexiteers will find their love of home, of the beauty of the countryside and a yearning for what has been lost over the years. Remainers and progressives who are willing to see past the stereotypes can find ​a committed anti-fascist​, a ​cosmopolitan​ and even a kind of feminist, given how many of Britain and Ireland’s best female composers were pupils of his.

But the greatest truth is in the music of course, something that Vaughan Williams avoided explaining, not wanting to oblige listeners to hear what ​they ​thought they should. This stubbornness has helped sully his reputation, not least in relation to his ​Pastoral Symphony​, which he wrote following his return from service in the First World War. The music writer Michael Kennedy called it his “greatest and most original symphony”. But he also said:

“The composer never publicly gave any clues as to what lay behind the music, leaving its title to mislead most commentators into portraying it as a kind of Cotswold rhapsody or a distillation of English folksong (partly true) and into making silly remarks about cows looking over gates or ‘V.W. rolling over and over in a ploughed field’.”

However, “it is really war time music”, ​as VW explained​ to his lover and, later, second wife Ursula Wood 16 years later.

The conductor Sir Roger Norrington ​has said of Vaughan Williams’s music​:

“He wanted music to be for everybody, almost to sound as if it was written by ordinary people. But he wanted the music to be English, really just English . . . There’s a sort of honesty, simplicity and a romanticism, I guess – an English romanticism such as you see in Turner for instance, one of the great English painters.”

He appears as a sort of Everyman. ​As ​Norrington has written elsewhere: “He was passionate and idealistic, a natural socialist and man of the people. . . [His] soul was ablaze with glory, pity and anger . . . He was the greatest man I am ever likely to meet.”3

Simon Heffer, meanwhile, ​has written​ of the tumultuous ​Symphony No. 6 that “it says something to me as an Englishman. It speaks to me of my cultural heritage, my conception of myself, where I came from, what my people have lived through, what the world that my parents were young in was like, and what paved the way for the one I was born into. So I suppose, for me, it is not just music, it is baggage.”

Vaughan Williams continues to carry his own baggage, but over recent years, his reputation has been revived. Some of the lazy stereotypes have been debunked. With Brexit and our relentless, roiling culture wars dominating our current cultural and political life, we must hope that the same lazy stereotypes now used to define his country and its people will eventually suffer the same fate.

  1. Ralph Vaughan Williams, ‘Elizabethan Music and the Modern World’, in David Manning (ed.), Vaughan Williams on Music (Oxford, 2008), p. 68. Found in ​Katie Palmer Heathman, ‘“​Lift Up a Living Nation”: Community and Nation, Socialism and Religion in The English Hymnal, 1906’​, Cultural and Social History, The Journal of the Social History Society, Vol. 14, 2017 – Issue 2
  2. Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Herbert Howells
  3. Roger Norrington in sleeve notes to Vaughan Williams Symphonies 4 & 6, London Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca, 1998)

Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.


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