I’ve been making slow and stately progress through Rob Young‘s majestic and (so far) inspirational ‘Electric Eden: unearthing Britain’s visionary music‘ (Faber, 2010). An unlikely thought – for me – arose: “I wonder if anyone’s a done decent biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams?” Unfortunately the short musical life I got my hands on – ‘Vaughan Williams‘ (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2000) – by the right-wing ideologue Simon Heffer (previous outings on Enoch Powell and worshipper of strong leadership Thomas Carlyle) wasn’t what I was looking for, though to give Heffer his due, while he doesn’t shirk or gloss over the radical side of RVW that was intrinsic to his work with folk song, he doesn’t go into the detail of the social circles – William Morris & chums in Chelsea – Young talks about. You could use this quote 60 or so years on, in Liverpool, in Muswell Hill:
‘What we want in England’, he wrote in The Vocalist in 1902, ‘is real music, even it be only a music-hall song. Provided it possess real feeling and real life, it will be worth all of the off scourings of the classics in the world.’ (p22)
Again, to give Heffer his due, he does his job; what I’m after wasn’t the book he was writing, and he does excite in his descriptions of the compositions and the creation of an English twentieth century classical canon. I’ve been listening with various success to some of those works since, though I have to admit, as with most orchestral music, my attention does tend to drift.
In passing, a couple of useful critical get-outs from VW’s friendship with Gustav Holst (p63/4):
He wrote to Holst after the first performance [of Holst’s Choral Symphony] to say that ‘I shall live in faith till I have heard it again several times and then I shall find out what a bloody fool I was not to see it all the first time.’
‘I couldn’t get hold of Flos [VW’s Flos campi] a bit and was therefore disappointed with it and me,’ Holst wrote to him after the first performance in October 1925.
What I find remarkable about RVW, an atheist turned agnostic who worked on one of the definitive hymn books, is the longevity of his creative powers, of his energetic engagement producing genuinely fresh music well into his old age. He started on his Fifth Symphony in 1937 in his 65th year and there were 4 more and a lot else to come. And – good man – he refused a knighthood. In a recent BBC4 documentary old ladies rhapsodized that “this haystack of a man” … “really did have pulling power” – fascinating.
And now, from deep in the heart of England, albeit with a touch of the Victorian fascination with Japan:
A splendid time, the weather with us, at Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire, last Friday – all the colours of autumn, but especially the reds of the acers. Spectacular.
And speaking of reds, interesting to see Paul Hayward in the Guardian describing Arsenal’s often sublime football as ‘tantric’: