Ralph Vaughan Williams

by Derek Nickles, Director of Music

This October 12th marks the birthday of one of the Anglican Church's most influential composers and personalities, Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Born in 1872 in the Cotswold village of Down Ampney, the young Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") began his musical studies with his aunt Sophy Wedgwood, and later at the Royal College of Music where he studied with two of the musical geniuses of Victorian England, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918).  While studying here, he meets his greatest friend, fellow student and another famous composer, Gustav Holst. 

By the turn of the twentieth century, he had developed an interest in folk music and was one of the first composers to travel the English countryside collecting and notating over 800 folk-songs and carols from singers for future generations to enjoy.  Upon the invitation of Percy Dearmer, the influential English hymnodist, Vaughan Williams began work as the musical editor of one of the most important documents of modern church music in the Anglican Church, The English Hymnal.  This project that Dearmer promised would "only take two months," took two years to complete.  The completed hymnal unveiled in 1906 served as a model for subsequent hymnals, Hymnal 1940 and Hymnal 1982, and hymnals for other denominations.  The Hymnal 1982 contains 5 original hymns by Vaughan Williams and 20 hymns that he harmonized, adapted, and/or arranged from traditional English folk melodies.  Among the five original hymn tunes that he wrote are:  Salve festa

dies ("Hail thee, festival day!"), Sine Nomine ("For all the saints"), King's Weston ("At the Name of Jesus"), The Call ("Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life"), and Down Ampney ("Come down, O Love divine").  Vaughan Williams also helped edit the collection of holiday favorites, The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928.  He is responsible, more than any other person, for the use of folk songs in modern hymnody.

Two of Vaughan Williams' more famous anthems include "The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune" and "O how Amiable."  Written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, "The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune" was first performed at Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, utilizing orchestra, organ, trumpet, and the large congregation assembled for the state occasion.  "O how Amiable" was written in 1934 and combines texts from Psalms 84 and 90 and concludes with the great hymn tune St. Anne, "O God, our Help in Ages Past."

As a composer, Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies, five operas, film music, ballet and stage music, several song cycles, church music and works for chorus and orchestra.  His music embraces a sense of simplicity found in the English folk tune.  His devotion to the early English composers such as Thomas Tallis resulted in such masterpieces as "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" in 1910.  He died on August 26, 1958 of coronary thrombosis.  His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey near another great English composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).