Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of the first composers who wrote in what you could call a “distinct English style”; he made a point of breaking away from the German style which had a profound influence on classical music forms like symphonies, concertos, and chamber music. His studies with Ravel likely had something to do with this.
Vaughan Williams had a strong sense of integrity, in that he believed music should be accessible to everyone. He also believed in being of service to his fellow citizens, to the point that he signed up at age 42 when World War One broke out. He was an ambulance wagon driver and became a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, being sent to fight in France in 1918. The constant sound of guns damaged his hearing and lead to his deafness in his old age. The war had an impact on his music, culminating in his Dona nobis pacem (“Grant us peace”) completed in 1936, at a time there must have been speculation of another war brewing.
The Lark Ascending is a poem by George Meredith, which inspired Vaughan Williams to compose it for violin and piano, then re-score it for violin and orchestra, the version we commonly hear today. The violinist often plays in a very free-flowing, improvisatory manner, to mimic the lark’s swooping and fluttering of wings. This work is one of the most beloved to the English. In popular culture, the music has been used by Olympic figure skater Yuna Kim; used to dramatic effect on Coronation Street (to those who watch, it was during the heartbreaking death scene of Hayley Cropper); and is referenced in Vikram Seth’s book An Equal Music.
A humble man, Ralph Vaughan Williams declined the honour of a knighthood. His ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey.
The Lark Ascending with violinist Hilary Hahn Camerata Salzburg lead by Louis Langree.
Ralph Vaughan William was born in Gloucestershire on October 12, 1872 and died on August 26, 1958, in London.