Classical Haiku: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Take our folks songs and
our hymns.  We trust you are a
noble alchemist.

It’s a little difficult to pin labels on Ralph Vaughan Williams. Was he a post-Romantic composer, or a modernist?

Well, yes.

The cool thing about Vaughan Williams’ music, aside from the sheer beauty of it, is that it looks forward while looking back. At one point in time a student of the successful Maurice Ravel, Vaughan Williams was fully aware of the most happening musical trends of his time.

But he also knew where he came from.

He knew Henry Purcell’s phenomenal music for English dramas. He was immersed in the Church of England’s rich musical tradition and fairly early in his career began creating what would become some of the most substantial hymn tune harmonizations the Anglican hymnal has ever known.

And he cared deeply about preserving Britain’s folk songs in a modernized age when war and other calamities threatened their extinction.

These impulses within Vaughan Williams gave us his drop-dead gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, his string-orchestra treatment of one of Tallis’ Renaissance psalm tunes for English church.

They also gave us any number of works for which he used English folk songs as the basis: his English Folk Song Suite, Fantasia on Greensleeves and Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus, to name just a few.

Today’s Classical haiku honors Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer who cared enough about his English musical past to carry it to the future in bold and beautiful works.


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