Today we have a double feature, both featuring the same composer. Ralph Vaughn Williams was born on this day in 1872. On his 38th birthday, he premiered his first symphony.
Born in 1872 in Gloucester, he moved to Leith Hill in North Downs following the death of his father. As a student he studied piano and the violin, which he described as his “musical salvation.” He studied at the Royal College of Music and Trinity College before returning to the RCM. Here he would study with Leopold Stokowski, who would later introduce many of Vaughn Williams’ symphonies to American audiences.
It was not until he was 30 that his first composition was published. He mixed composition with conducting, lecturing and editing – particularly the English Hymnal. In 1904, he discovered English folk songs, which due to increased literacy and music publication in rural areas were being lost. Vaughn Williams transcribed many of these folk songs himself, with his efforts doing much to raise appreciation of these songs.
His first big conducting successes came with the premieres of Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and his choral symphony A Sea Symphony, both in 1910. He served in the army during World War 1 which would bring on hearing loss. Upon his return, he wrote his third symphony, A Pastoral Symphony which drew on his experiences as an ambulance vollunteer during the war. He would go on to write 9 symphonies in total, again being bitten by the curse of Beethoven. He died in 1958, having provided the world with a large amount of music.
A Sea Symphony was Vaughn Williams’ first symphony, being written between 1903 and 1909. Vaughn Williams conducted the premiere himself at the Leeds Festival on the 12th of October, 1910.
In performance today we have the third movement of A Sea Symphony, Waves, and Dutch violinist Janine Jansen performing perhaps his most well known work, The Lark Ascending.
Hope you enjoyed these performances. Have you got a favourite Vaughn Williams piece? Perhaps one of his hymns that he harmonised? Let me know in the comments, or write a blog post about it linking back here and I’ll add a link below.
Just a quick note: today was also Luciano Pavarotti’s birthday. While I would have been more than happy to celebrate this today, the link between Vaughn Williams and his first symphony deserved mentioning.