Ralph Vaughan Williams is arguably the greatest composer Britain has seen since the days of Henry Purcell. In a long and extensive career, he composed music notable for its power, nobility and expressiveness, representing, perhaps, the essence of ‘Englishness’.
Vaughan Williams was born on the 12th October, 1872 in the Cotswold village of Down Ampney. He was educated at Charterhouse School, then Trinity College, Cambridge. Later he was a pupil of Stanford and Parry at the Royal College of Music, after which he studied with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris.
At the turn of the century he was among the very first to travel into the countryside to collect folk-songs and carols from singers, notating them for future generations to enjoy. As musical editor of The English Hymnal he composed several hymns that are now world-wide favourites (For all the Saints, Come down O love Divine
). Later he also helped to edit The Oxford Book of Carols
, with similar success.
Before the war he had met and then sustained a long and deep friendship with the composer Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams volunteered to serve in the Field Ambulance Service in Flanders for the 1914-1918 war, during which he was deeply affected by the carnage and the loss of close friends such as the composer George Butterworth.
For many years Vaughan Williams conducted and led the Leith Hill Music Festival, conducting Bach's St Matthew Passion
on a regular basis. He also became professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in London.
In his lifetime, Vaughan Williams eschewed all honours with the exception of the Order of Merit which was conferred upon him in 1938.
He died on the 26th August 1958; his ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey, near Purcell.
In a long and productive life, music flowed from his creative pen in profusion. Hardly a musical genre was untouched or failed to be enriched by his work, which included nine symphonies, five operas, film music, ballet and stage music, several song cycles, church music and works for chorus and orchestra.
Below: A short You Tube biography in words and pictures, produced by Colin Lees.