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Folk ascending

The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was inspired by English folk music when crafting his best-known works. However, there is more to his music than just nostalgia, writes Abi Millar.

On 12th October, the music world will celebrate the 150th birthday of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). One of Britain’s most prolific composers, Vaughan Williams penned nine symphonies and five operas, along with an array of hymn tunes, film scores, carols, ballets, chamber music, and concerti. He is most famous for the likes of The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which consistently top polls of radio listeners’ favourites.

Compared to the more avant-garde composers of his period, Vaughan Williams’ output is nothing if not accessible. He is known for his soaring melodies, which evoke bucolic scenes from a pre-industrial age. However, that simplicity should not be taken as simplistic. As a growing wave of critics now assert, Vaughan Williams is a far more diverse and interesting figure than he is sometimes given credit for.

“When I began my work on Vaughan Williams in the late ‘80s, there was virtually nobody working on the subject,” says Vaughan Williams scholar Julian Onderdonk, professor of music theory, history and composition at West Chester University. “His music was too old hat, it wasn’t edgy enough. But as scholarship has moved away from that, I think his pioneering achievement is increasingly recognised.”

This achievement is perhaps best contextualised through thinking about his interest in folk music. As Onderdonk’s own work has explored, Vaughan Williams’ supposedly parochial style actually came from a place of political radicalism. He was invested in promoting working class culture, and – contrary to the modernist ideal of the artist at odds with society – saw the artist as the servant of the people.

“Vaughan Williams believed very firmly that music needed to speak to a broad public,” says Onderdonk. “I think folk songs helped prevent his music from becoming over-elaborated. They showed the way on how to be simple and direct, even when he wasn’t being folky.”

Beginning in his early thirties, Vaughan Williams spent significant portions of time biking through the English countryside (mostly East Anglia, Sussex and Hertfordshire) familiarising himself with the regional folk tunes. Although he spent most of his life in London, he wanted to cast a light on local traditions.

“He had been aware of folk song from an early age through the work of the collectors John and Lucy Broadwood, and was interested enough to begin lecturing on the subject from 1903,” says Tiffany Hore, library and archives director at The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, part of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). “He collected his first song, Bushes and Briars, from Charles Potiphar in Essex, later that year, and in the years that followed he collected over 800 songs and carols.”

In doing so, he established himself as one of the most important figures of the first English folk music revival – a period during the early 20th century when collectors sought to preserve what was seen as a vanishing art. In the face of growing industrialisation, it seemed that the rural ways were dying out, and old ways of life were being forgotten.

The emphasis was on conducting fieldwork, and transcribing songs by the remaining performers before it was too late. In this, Vaughan Williams stands alongside other key collectors such as Cecil Sharp, and George Butterworth and Ella Mary Leather. Together, they participated in the Folk-Song Society, which eventually merged with the English Folk Dance Society to become the EFDSS. Vaughan Williams served as president of the EFDSS from its formation in 1932 till his death in 1958.

“What sets Vaughan Williams apart from his contemporaries is the way in which he used the songs he notated,” says Hore. “Others such as Butterworth and Percy Grainger incorporated folk material into their classical compositions, but Vaughan Williams took this to a new level.”

For starters, he worked tirelessly as an arranger of folk songs, producing nearly 50 publications with around 260 arrangements, and adapting about 70 examples for The English Hymnal. He also wove these tunes into his instrumental work – for example in Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus for harp and string orchestra, and his English Folk Song Suite.

“He very much favoured modal tunes, which simply means using an unusual scale so that they sound a bit different from the mainstream, popular music,” says Onderdonk. “I think he did that partly because modal tunes were thought to be old – it seemed to be proof that they came from the Renaissance, before the tonal major-minor system was codified – but also because they seemed distinctive.”

Even when he wasn’t quoting songs directly, much of his work bears their influence. The Lark Ascending, for instance, features what Onderdonk calls a ‘folky’ middle section, characterised by its energetic pulse and sing-song melody.

“Sometimes he created medleys or potpourris of folk tunes, for society dances and things like that,” says Onderdonk. “But for serious concert music, he would of course develop them in the way that Debussy or Brahms or Wagner would. He was inspired by folk music to write his own original melodies that partake of the folk spirit.”

For Vaughan Williams, as for his contemporaries, there was a nationalist element to this undertaking. At the time, English music was somewhat stigmatised – a ‘weak sister’ to the French, German and Italian music that was so revered throughout the continent.

As Vaughan Williams wrote in 1941: “The attitude of foreign to English musicians is unsympathetic, self-opinionated and pedantic. They believe that their tradition is the only one… and that anything that is not in accordance with that tradition is ‘wrong’ and arises from insular ignorance.”

The figureheads of this movement wanted to create a distinctly English, ‘pastoral’ style of classical music, which would match the mood of deepening nationalism in the build-up to World War 1. Vaughan Williams, then, sought to rid his style of Teutonic influences and supplant them with a folky element he saw as more essentially English.

“Vaughan Williams believed that English folk culture – meaning folk tales and folk music – reflected an English spirit, because that’s what everyone believed back then,” says Onderdonk. “He wanted to blend folk traditions with a few mainstream European traditions and genres, to make English music count on the international stage.”

Clearly there are problems with this idea, which extend beyond any quibbles we may have with nationalism generally. For one thing, it relies on a romanticised ideal of folk music, which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Far from being a point of national distinction, different strains of European folk culture actually share deep similarities and common roots.

The collectors’ methodology has also come under flak. They focused exclusively on songs that were deemed ‘old’ – songs that were supposed to have been passed down orally over generations – while ignoring other tunes that didn’t fit their preconceptions.

“What happened was the collectors went to the countryside and asked for songs, and people sometimes started singing newer music hall songs,” says Onderdonk. “They said, oh, we don’t want those songs. We want the songs handed down from your grandmother. So collectors like Vaughan Williams were deciding what was a proper folk song or not, when the truth of the matter is that folk song has long had urban influences.”

Some critics have also taken umbrage against the idea of middle class collectors purloining working class tunes, and using them to get income from the copyright. Onderdonk thinks that, while Vaughan Williams can’t be completely exonerated of that, he did take an interest in the people, as well as just the music. Similarly, while he bought into the idea of an ancient English tradition, he was aware there might be outside influences on folk song.

“He was actually more open minded than a lot of his peers,” says Onderdonk. “He collected songs that came from Ireland, he recognised that some songs could have Scandinavian influence. That’s the kind of thing an English chauvinist would not have done.”

Despite these nuances, it was for his romanticised view of Englishness that Vaughan Williams lost clout among the modernists. Only in the 1990s did his work come back around, with critics conceding that Vaughan Williams was more than just a nostalgic nationalist.

“The modernists valued an alienated, edgy artistic expression, but musicology has got past these narrow strictures,” says Onderdonk. “It recognises that all kinds of things are worthwhile, even very straightforward music, and today Vaughan Williams is providing an inspiration to new composers.”

This critical about-face may have been lost on the public, who never stopped loving Vaughan Williams. There have always been performances, and always been devoted listeners with an ear for the sheer beauty of his work. As we approach his 150th birthday, now’s a good time to immerse ourselves in his music once again and appreciate his extraordinary legacy.  

Box-out – Into the Woods

Pertinently for the theme of this issue, Vaughan Williams wrote a hymn tune to words that begin ‘Into the woods’. This is a musical setting of a poem by Sidney Lanier, and features in the hymnal Songs of Praise Enlarged. The first four lines are as follows:

‘Into the woods my Master went,

Clean forspent, forspent.

Into the woods my Master came,

Forspent with love and shame.’

Onderdonk says that while the tune doesn’t much resemble a folk song, it does use the Phrygian mode, an unusual type of minor scale. “We know he was attracted to the unusual modes of folksongs, or at least privileged those that were ‘modal’,” he adds.

This article appears in the Sep-Nov 2022 edition of Overseas

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