It was my childhood parish priest, a kind man with an acerbic wit by the name Robert Ivan Jones who once recounted meeting the aging Ralph Vaughan Williams when the composer visited Hereford Cathedral. Robert’s enduring memory was of RVW being offered the hallowed “Bishop’s Chair”, normally strictly reserved for the incumbent primate. This was not due to some undue deference on the part of the Cathedral, but because Vaughan Williams was simply too big to be supported by any other seating they could offer him!
Vaughan Williams, quite literally a giant of British music, would probably have raised an eyebrow at sharing a concert programme with Benjamin Britten. An eyebrow whose angle would have been more than reciprocated by Britten himself; the two men mistrusted each other and were far from complimentary about the other’s respective work. Vaughan Williams was highly critical of the young Britten’s output, whilst Britten often considered RVW’s music to be tired and conservative, much like the man himself; this was, and still is, a view many share. Whilst countless documentaries and extensive BBC footage have given us a much greater understanding of Britten, there are probably few composers who are greater mis-understood than RVW.
One of the greatest mis-conceptions about Vaughan Williams was that his music was (as the composer Peter Warlock once witheringly put it) “like listening to a cow staring over a fence”. Indeed, we consider Vaughan Williams to be synonymous with an antiquated vision of the English countryside. However, look closer at his music and Vaughan Williams (a Londoner by design if not by birth) shows us a very dark vision of the merry England with which he is so regularly associated.
The fifth symphony, started in 1938, was written at a very poignant moment in his life. He had already seen many of his dearest friends lost in the first world war (including the composer George Butterworth), and he was now staring down the barrel of a second conflict, with all its uncertainties. He had also moved to the Surrey countryside to give his desperately frail wife, Adeline, a respite from the clatter and bustle of London. However, Vaughan Williams missed his London life terribly and (contrary to popular opinion) often considered his countryside idyll a prison cell where he was increasingly caring for a woman trapped in her own body.
The third movement of this symphony, entitled “Romanza”, is less of a love letter to Adeline, and more a torrent of emotions he had upon meeting Ursula Wood (latterly Ursula Vaughan Williams); the conflicting feelings of grief and guilt as well as feelings of instant adoration for, now, two women understandably had a profound impact. Adeline, aware of Ralph’s need for the professional and personal companionship that she could no longer offer him, not only knew of this connection, but actively encouraged it. Vaughan Williams remained a devoted companion, husband and carer to Adeline until she died, but her encouragement of his relationship with Ursula did not stop his conflicting feelings being laid bare for all to see in this symphony.
Vaughan Williams was a complex man who deserves a second viewing with fresh eyes. He was much more of a revolutionary than, ironcally, the formerly-anti-establishment firebrand Britten. Whilst Britten latterly became the darling of royalty, accepting a peerage, Vaughan Williams turned down a knighthood preferring to be referred to as Dr Vaughan Williams, a title he felt he’d actually earned!
The one area the two men could see absolutely eye-to-eye on, however, was the importance of amateur music. They saw it as the beating heart of cultural life throughout the country and both men thought nothing of dividing their time between the world of professional and amateur music-making. They could see, rather plainly, that without a rich thriving culture of amateur music making there would simply be no need or no desire for professional musical endeavour, and a whole way of life that brings joy and comfort to so many would simply slip away.
It was for this reason I was so delighted to see that the BBC has recently turned its attention to showcasing amateur music, through a series of initiatives including “All Together Now – The Great Orchestra Challenge”, a competition the London Gay Symphony Orchestra had the honour of being invited to take part in, selected as they were from hundreds of applications from orchestras throughout the country. The orchestra takes great pride in the fact that it made it through to the semi finals and could help, in its own way, to show just how important and vital amateur music making remains to our lives in the 21st Century. I’m sure Vaughan Williams and hopefully more so Benjamin Britten (for obvious reasons) would have been equally proud!
Driving home from our rehearsal this evening, where we had rehearsed the “romanza” movement of the Vaughan Williams symphony, I was thinking about the nature of love, in all its connotations. Obviously, for RVW, it was a very complex emotion and that can sometimes be very difficult to capture in performance.
I will let you all into a secret: a conductor’s life is far from glamorous, and it can be a very lonely profession. You spend your life trying to get yourself into the mindset of another person, usually long-dead, trying to feel what they were feeling at the time they took a pen and made a series of comparatively ambiguous marks onto music manuscript paper (if medical notes were so open to interpretation, most of us would end up dead!) In an effort to do this, you sometimes become so focused on this act of clairvoyance that you end up totally out of step with the world and people in it. Often before a first rehearsal I am kept awake, and sometimes even physically uneasy from this feeling that you have so much sound, thought, feeling, and emotion condensed inside you that you just HAVE to get it out. You have to turn the almost schizophrenic soundtrack playing constantly on loop in your head into music to finally get rid of it.
The most humbling thought of any conductor is the knowledge that no matter how much they wave their arms around, if there isn’t an orchestra, then it is all for nothing; a conductor is literally nothing without their musicians, and when you work with a group for a long time you form one of the most profound relationships you could ever form with a group of people. You come to know them, and to love them, for the time and the dedication they show to giving that performance of those ambiguous musical marks mediated by a tailcoat-wearing conduit who is reduced in performance to a series of mute gestures with a white stick (hands and eyes are also available and, hopefully, used!)
The LGSO has been performing for 21 years, and it remains a privilege to have worked with them for six of those (I hope to be there for a good while to come…). They indulge me, they give me the space for us to find a performance together and to allow me moments of hero worship of long-dead people who left us this amazing thing called music. Something that, often without words, can bring us excitement, joy, sadness and with every note the orchestra have ever played, love.
Here’s to the next 21 years of amateur music, and to the unstoppable rise of the LGSO, I couldn’t be more honoured to be here.