Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Remembering a Veteran: Lt. Ralph Vaughan Williams

By James Patton

Soldier of the King
Ralph Vaughan Williams, OM (1872–1958) was one of the most prolific composers in the history of English music, certainly the most important of the 20th century even though he only lived for about half of it. He composed symphonies, operas, ballets, concerti, chamber music, film scores, radio scores, rhapsodies, and sonatas, as well as works for organ, band, chorus, piano, organ, and individual vocalists—over 180 distinct works plus dozens of adaptations. He is particularly known for his hymns written in the C of E choral style, mostly in his early period. The current hymnal of the Episcopal Church in the USA contains 24 of his works, more than any other composer, and his 1906 composition “For All the Saints” is found in most Christian hymnals regardless of denomination. Listen to this performance by the world famous Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (skip the ad):

His family was wealthy due to his mother’s inheritance from the Wedgewood potteries fortune. His father was a well-born vicar with the double surname Vaughan Williams, in that unusual English tradition, and Ralph enjoyed a living from his family for his entire life, which then paid over to The Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust which still assists young musicians in their training. He married Virginia Woolf’s cousin, the cellist Adeline Fisher, in 1897. There were no children.

Vaughn Williams Conducting After the War

Ralph was educated at the Royal College of Music in London and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was awarded a doctorate in 1899. Throughout his life he the only honorific that he wanted was to be called "Dr.”, and he turned down all honors offered to him that carried a title, accepting only the Order of Merit in 1935, which is perhaps the most prestigious honor because there can be only 24 living holders at any time. The only wage-paying jobs that he ever held were as the organist at St. Barnabas Church in Lambeth, South London, from 1895 to 1899 and as a soldier of the King from 1915 until 1919.

Williams (Highlighted) in Formation

His First World War service has been described as one of the two watershed experiences in his career, which changed the flavor and volume of his musical ouevre. In the years after the war he produced a large number of his operas and symphonies. The other watershed was his tempestuous love affair with Ursula Wood, an aspiring poet he met in 1938. Both were married to others, he was 39 years older than she, and this went on until they married in 1953, after both of their spouses had finally died. If you’re curious, you can read more about this here: 

Shortly after completing what would be his most famous romantic piece, titled "A Lark Ascending," Vaughan Williams enlisted on 31 December 1914 for a four-year term of service as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps (Territorial Force), in the 2/4th London Field Ambulance, part of the 179th Brigade within the 60th (2/2nd London) Division. The most likely reason he chose the Field Ambulance was his age—he was 42 years old. His first service was at the Duke of York’s HQ in Chelsea, a barracks that was very close to his residence, where he underwent training in squad drill, stretcher drill, first aid, and lectures on military practice. The drill was rigorous for Vaughan Williams, who had flat feet. There was, however, still enough time to form a band, with Vaughan Williams as the conductor, as there were many musicians who were serving in the unit. The "2" in 2/4th meant second line, which would normally not be sent on active service, but would repopulate the first line as needed. Thus it was reasonable for him to assume that he might never leave England.

Vaughn Williams (Right) with His Ambulance Section

But needs must, and second line notwithstanding, mobilization orders were received on 15 June 1916 and the battalion left for France on 22 June. Vaughan Williams went to Ecoivres, a few miles north-west of Arras, on the slopes of Vimy Ridge. The British had taken over this sector of the front line in March. Conditions were terrible. Their task was evacuating the wounded from the Neuville St. Vaast area. The terrain was largely flattened—nothing was more than five feet tall. The soldiers were surrounded by dead bodies and rats by the million. The men worked in two-hour shifts. It was dangerous work, the roads almost impassable from shelling. A biographer, Alain Frogley, writes of this period that, since Vaughan Williams was considerably older than most of his comrades, "the back-breaking labor of dangerous night-time journeys through mud and rain must have been more than usually punishing". The war left its emotional mark on Vaughan Williams, who lost many comrades and friends, including the young composer and protégé George Butterworth. “Never such innocence again,” another biographer, Philip Larkin, would later write.

Vaughn Williams (Right Rear) Military Bandmaster

In mid-November the 60th Division received orders to go to Salonika. For Vaughan Williams, the nightmare of the trenches was over, although circumstances in Macedonia weren’t all that great. He left that front in 1917 to take a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery, serving as a band conductor. Once again, however, needs must, and the German March 1918 offensive required that he take command of a battery and he served on the Western Front for several months before becoming the conductor of General Henry Horne’s First Army HQ Band. As a result of his artillery service, his hearing was impaired. 

Sources include The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society and The Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust


  1. A fascinating look at a great composer. Thank you!
    David Beer