Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

  • Profession: Historian, composer.
  • Residences: London.
  • Relation to Mahler:
  • Correspondence with Mahler:
  • Born: 12-10-1872 Down Ampney, England.
  • Died: 26-08-1958 London, England.
  • Buried: Westminster Abbey, North choir aisle, London, England.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was an English composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores. He was also a collector of English folk music and song; this collecting activity influenced both his editorial approach to the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father, the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams (1834–1875), was vicar at All Saints Church. The surname Vaughan Williams is an unhyphenated double-barrelled name of Welsh origin. Following his father’s death in 1875, he was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan (née Wedgwood) (1842–1937), daughter of Josiah Wedgwood III and the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, a Wedgwood family home in the Surrey Hills. He was also related to the Darwins, Charles Darwin being a great-uncle. Though born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, Vaughan Williams never took it for granted and worked all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals in which he believed.

At the age of six Vaughan Williams began piano and basic composition lessons with his aunt, Sophy Wedgwood. He started playing the violin at the age of seven. In January 1887, at the age of fourteen, he attended Charterhouse School, which was one of the few schools at the time to encourage musical expression. After Charterhouse he attended the Royal College of Music (RCM) under Charles Villiers Stanford. He read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his friends and contemporaries included the philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. He then returned to the RCM and studied composition with Hubert Parry, who became a friend. One of his fellow pupils at the RCM was Leopold Stokowski and during 1896 they both studied organ under Sir Walter Parratt. Stokowski later went on to perform six of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies for American audiences, making the first recording of the Sixth Symphony in 1949 with the New York Philharmonic, and giving the U.S. premiere of the Ninth Symphony in Carnegie Hall in 1958.

Another friendship made at the RCM, crucial to Vaughan Williams’s development as a composer, was with fellow-student Gustav Holst, whom he first met in 1895. From that time onwards they spent several ‘field days’ reading through, and offering constructive criticism on each other’s works in progress.

Vaughan Williams’s composition developed slowly and it was not until he was 30 that the song “Linden Lea” became his first publication. He mixed composition with conducting, lecturing, and editing other music, notably that of Henry Purcell and the English Hymnal. He had already taken lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897 and in 1907–1908 took a big step forward in his orchestral style when he studied for three months in Paris with Maurice Ravel.

In 1904 Vaughan Williams discovered English folk songs and carols, which were fast becoming extinct because the oral tradition through which they existed was being undermined by an increase in literacy and the availability of printed music in rural areas. He travelled the countryside, transcribing and preserving many himself. Later, he incorporated some songs and melodies into his own music, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working lives of ordinary people. His efforts did much to raise appreciation of traditional English folk song and melody. Later in his life he served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which, in recognition of his early and important work in this field, named its Vaughan Williams Memorial Library after him. During this time he strengthened his links to prominent writers on folk music, including the Reverend George B. Chambers.

In 1905 Vaughan Williams conducted the first concert of the newly founded Leith Hill Music Festival at Dorking which he was to conduct until 1953, when he passed the baton to his successor, William Cole.

In 1909 he composed incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play, a stage production at Cambridge University of Aristophanes’ The Wasps. The next year, he had his first big public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral) and his choral symphony A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1). 


The ashes of Ralph Vaughan Williams, eminent British composer, and his second wife Ursula are buried in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey, near the graves of Herbert Howells and Charles Villiers Stanford. All the music played at his burial service was selected according to his known wish. He composed a new anthem for the unveiling of the Battle of Britain memorial chapel in the Abbey in 1947 and arranged the setting of the hymn All people that on earth do dwell for the 1953 coronation (the first occasion on which a congregational hymn had been sung at a coronation). The slate gravestone was originally cut by sculptor Reynolds Stone but in 1965 it was re-cut and filled with white marble for better preservation. The inscription reads:





and a small white stone adjoining his just gives the initials for his widow “UVW” with a cross. She was buried on 21 April 2008.

Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, a son of the Revd. Arthur Vaughan Williams and his wife Margaret (Wedgwood). He attended Charterhouse School and studied at the Royal College of Music under Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt. After university he was a pupil of Charles Stanford. In 1897 he married Adeline Fisher. He became the leading British composer of his generation, writing songs, instrumental works, choral works and symphonies. During the 1914-18 war he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as an ambulance orderly and later served at the Somme. Declining a knighthood he was made a member of the Order of Merit. In 1953 he married his second wife Ursula Wood (1911-2007).

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