Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) is one of Britain's best-loved composers, and one who is at last becoming more widely recognised as a truly great figure in the world of music. 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the composer's death, and as a result we are celebrating his life today – as close to the beginning of the year as we could reasonably get, in our first From the Library programme of the New Year – with performances of many of his best-known works along with some that will be less familiar.
Vaughan Williams's works consistently head charts of classical music ‘hits’ – particularly in the UK – and he is perhaps best know for The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, both of which appears in today's programme. Yet music did not come easily to him – he had to work hard at it to learn the required skills, and overcame the criticism of many including his family.
Other perennial favourites include The English Folk Song Suite. The composer was an avid folk music collector and his love of this music influenced his entire life: he began collecting folk songs in England in 1903 and continued to do so until the advent of the First World War, collecting over 800 songs, carols and singing games. At the time of his death in 1958 he was President of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
In addition, Vaughan Williams composed a lively medley of British Sea Songs which will be familiar to older British listeners from its use as the theme music to the broadcast adaptation of the Billy Bunter stories, and also as a startup theme by Anglia Television along with an excerpt of Händel's Water Music Suite.
The composer also wrote a number of film scores, one of the best known being his music for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic starring John Mills, much of which he incorporated into his seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antartica, with its deeply moving, eerie musical vistas, which is included in today's programme. Vaughan Williams in fact wrote a total of nine symphonies (which he did not number until the 9th was completed). His first three – The Sea Symphony, The London Symphony and the Pastoral Symphony – we will also hear today.
We will also hear the seldom-aired orchestral version of his Serenade to Music, originally composed for and dedicated to Henry J. Wood on the occasion of his Jubilee, in grateful recognition of his services to music. The original serenade was written for sixteen soloists and was set to the words from Act five, scene one of Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice, including Lorenzo's speech:
“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn:
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music….”
Two years later, however, Vaughan Williams wrote the evocative and moving orchestral arrangement that we will hear in today's programme.
Ralph Vaughan Williams's output was prodigious and today's programme can really only scratch the surface of this great composer's work.
• This programme is produced by Radio Riel in conjunction with the Caledon Library in Second Life, and presented by Elrik Merlin. For more information on the Caledon Library, current exhibits and the work of Second Life reference libraries in general, please visit the Caledon Library Web site, or one of their locations in-world.
• You can listen to the programme now at http://music.radioriel.org, or simply visit any Caledon Library branch in-world and press Play on your embedded music player.
Please note that some of the metadata from works played in today's programme is quite complex. As a result the ‘Now Playing’ widget at the top of this page may not display the correct piece. Winamp or a more sophisticated metadata reader should decode it correctly.