How our county inspired Vaughan Williams

Ian Collins With pending Norfolk concerts set to celebrate the life of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and to mark the anniversary of his death in the summer of 1958, Ian Collins pays tribute to the man who put us on the musical map.

Ian Collins

If an English summer has a soundtrack then it lies in the collected works of Ralph Vaughan Williams - sweeping across meadow-like symphonies, operas, chamber and choral music and soaring to the sublime in The Lark Ascending.

This most classic of English composers, who died 50 years ago in August, is perennially popular. His music always rides high in the Classic FM charts, whereas those of our own Benjamin Britten may be barely noted.

Even more than Elgar and Holst and Delius (and the wonderful but still-unsung Gerald Finzi), he seems to set our landscapes and traditions and temperament into musical notation as if in acts of melodic magic.

Ralph (pronounced “Rayf”) Vaughan Williams was born in 1872, the son of a well-connected Gloucestershire vicar. His intellectual, upper-middle class family included Darwins and Wedgwoods and he inherited, despite much privilege, a profound egalitarian ethic.

The man who would later decline a knighthood rejected the chance of an officer's commission and enlisted in the first world war as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. A stretcher bearer, before switching to the artillery, he was ultimately to be deafened by prolonged exposure to the din of gunfire.

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In the 1890s he had studied under Parry, Wood and Stanford, and then with Max Bruch in Berlin. One of the patron saints of late starters, he published his first song, Linden Lea, when aged 30.

And then, at the turn of the 20th century, Vaughan Williams discovered the rich heritage of English folk music and song just as it was on the verge of vanishing. He set about collecting the people's poems and tunes, sung and played down the generations and across the centuries, before they finally faded.

Although his music may be most associated with the rolling countryside of his native Gloucestershire, and Sussex, where he later settled, he was an energetic traveller with a particular love of East Anglia. In The Fen Country (1904) and Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 (1906) were two of the most beautiful pieces he ever wrote.

An exhibition in True's Yard Museum until July 15 records the composer's visit to King's Lynn North End in 1905, where sailors berthed by rough weather in the Tilden Smith pub (now The Retreat) sang him nearly 70 songs which he transcribed into his notebook. The haul included The Captain's Apprentice, which relates the saga of a Lynn workhouse lad turned cabinboy beaten to death by a cruel sea captain who goes to the gallows for his crime.

He roamed the shires each summer and autumn - travelling in October 1910, for instance, to Southwold with George Butterworth, the composer of Banks of Green Willow (a bucolic anthem in this centenary year of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows), soon to be killed in trenches of brown mud.

They called on retired publican Charles Newby, lately moved from the White Horse in Southwold High Street to the new Arts and Crafts almshouses in Reydon, and lingered with the extended Hurr clan of Victoria Street whose fisher songs included The Cobbler, a bawdy affair of a cuckold dating back 600 years, and Jones's Ale which was known to have been sung in the 1590s.

But John Mason, who organises the popular St Botolph's Trunch concert series in the parish church near North Walsham, and also runs the Zeferretti Quartet in which he himself plays bassoon, has noted his hero's frequent visits to north-east Norfolk

He says: “Here the composer wrote some of his most ground-breaking works and collected folk songs which would change the face of English music. It is also little wonder that stand-up comedian Sid Kipper, alluding to days when Norfolk could never have been more rustic, claims that 'Vaughan Williams stole my folk song'!”

One of the key reasons why this musical genius conjures up images of England for us, as if by magic, is that his material is embroidered with the songs and tunes our fisher and farm-labourer forebears honed and handed down the ages. They are deeply embedded in our folk spirit.

Though a rather unlikely woman of the people, Bloomsbury Group writer Virginia Woolf once observed: “Masterpieces are not single and solitary births, they are outcomes of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”

And now, if there is a faint unease about the easy art of appropriation in the era before copyright laws, as we picture Ralph Vaughan Williams busily scribbling in his notebook what singers and players were giving away freely or for glasses of beer, there should be a far stronger sense of gratitude that our common heritage was being preserved for posterity in the nick of time.

And anyway, a certain contradiction is part of the human story. Vaughan Williams was, after all, the atheist (and later the “cheerful agnostic”) who compiled The English Hymnal. He simply worshipped music.

This teacher, lecturer and writer, and staunch friend of many conductors and composers, also firmly believed that everyone should be encouraged to make their own music, however simple, as long as it was entirely their own.

His greatest advocate, Ursula - his widow and biographer best remembered for a spirited performance in a tribute film by Ken Russell - died only last year, when in her late nineties. See how the centuries connect through just two linked lives.

And, talking of centenaries, John Mason continues: “1908 was a key year for Vaughan Williams and, as well as study with Ravel in Paris, Norfolk was central.

“He must have taken a stopping train through north-east Norfolk as he collected at South Walsham, The Outlandish Knight from a performance by Mr Hilton; at Acle, Lovely Joan from Mr Jay; at Rollesby, The Man of Burningham Town from Mr Locke. He also collected in Catfield.

“Perhaps he ended up back at Sheringham where he had stayed regularly since 1903, writing from a guest house there much of his first symphony, the sprawling Sea Symphony for soloists, choir and orchestra, a work of epic scale.”

Now the veteran music teacher has organised a celebratory programme to be aired in Trunch and Acle parish churches over the midsummer weekend. It will focus on both the centenary of the composer's very productive visit to the area and the 50th anniversary of his death.

Five musicians from Frankfurt and Norfolk - sopranos Margarita Kopp and Konstanze Callwitz, contralto Felicity Devonshire, flautist Anna Hopkins and pianist Gerhard Schroth - will perform a selection of German and English vocal and instrumental music which Vaughan Williams admired, wrote or collected.

The Anglo-German collaboration began when Gerhard Schroth and his wife stayed in the Trunch B&B run by Mrs Mason and gave an impromptu performance on the family piano. He and Frankfurt singers Margarita and Konstanze, joined by Acle's Felicity Devonshire, then staged Mozart's Triumph in the local church, in 2006, for the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth.

Now pieces by Purcell, Warlock and Elgar are to be played alongside others by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Richard Strauss, before a second-half focus on works by Vaughan Williams himself.

Both shows will feature Linden Lea, but while Acle is treated to his Rhosymedre from Three Organ Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes, Trunch will hear the stirring Norfolk folk song The Sailor and Young Nancy, collected in Yarmouth by E.J. Moeran and adapted by Phyllis Tate.

Each performance will conclude with two new arrangements by East Ruston composer David Morgan - formerly head of music at Norwich's City College and still organist at Acle church - of The Outlandish Knight and Lovely Joan collected locally by the great composer in 1908.

He says: “I have preserved the original melodies of the two folk songs but given the pianist the opportunity to colour and dramatise the story lines unfolding in each song. We plan to perform them with the three singers acting out the parts as set out in the lyrics.”

The St Botolph's, Trunch concert on the evening of Saturday June 21 will aid the medieval church's restoration appeal.

The follow-up event, at Acle from 4pm on the Sunday, will be preceded by the classic prelude or accompaniment to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams… a very English strawberry tea.

Tickets for each concert cost £5 at the door or by booking in advance - on 01263 722193 for Trunch, or 01692 652329 for Acle. Strawberry tea servings can be reserved, for £2.50, on 01493 750491.