In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ralph Vaughan Williams

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Collected Writings and Correspondence
  • Memoirs and Tributes
  • Dissertations
  • Essay Collections
  • Folk Music

Music Ralph Vaughan Williams
Eric Saylor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0063


Ralph Vaughan Williams, O.M. (b. 1872–d. 1958), was the leading English composer of his generation and one of the foremost symphonic composers of the 20th century. Educated at the Royal College of Music and Trinity College, Cambridge, he made significant contributions to every major genre of music; particularly important works include his nine symphonies (the first performances of which span from 1910 to 1958), the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing (1930), the one-act opera Riders to the Sea (1936), and multiple dramatic settings of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. His tireless promotion of and advocacy for English music and musicians have led to inaccurate assumptions about the parochialism or insularity of his own idiom; however, his distinctive musical voice is increasingly recognized as one of the most original and enduring of the early 20th century. As composer, conductor, teacher, author, lecturer, editor, administrator, and proto-ethnomusicologist, his influence was felt throughout English musical life, and he remains one of that nation’s most popular musicians of all time.

General Overviews

Most basic introductions to Vaughan Williams should be read with some degree of skepticism, as clichés or misconceptions about the composer frequently emerge when nonspecialists write about his life and career. Coverage of the composer is either cursory or entirely absent from most major surveys of 20th-century music, with the notable exceptions of Whittall 1999 and Morgan 1991. Fox-Strangways 1920, the first significant overview of Vaughan Williams’s career, wasn’t published until the composer was nearly fifty. Vaughan Williams fares somewhat better in surveys of English and British music. Trend 1985 represents perhaps the best of the self-contained introductory essays to the composer, which also include Goddard 1946 and Caldwell 1998. Howes 1966 and Banfield 1995 provide more-diffuse introductions, as descriptions of the composer’s music are spread throughout the texts, even if short biographical sketches are also present. The concise treatment of Vaughan Williams’s personal background and professional activities provided in Onderdonk 2013 (cited under Extramusical Influences: Political and Cultural Influences) would serve as an excellent and far more sophisticated counterbalance to many of the sources noted here.

  • Banfield, Stephen, ed. The Blackwell History of Music in Britain. Vol. 6, The Twentieth Century. Music in Britain. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

    Unlike the other entries in this category, Vaughan Williams does not receive a self-contained entry; rather, the section on “Art Music” (pp. 177–500) contains many short references to his individual works, organized by genre and alongside descriptions of other composers’ contributions to those genres. Tersely written, but wide ranging.

  • Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music. Vol. 2, From c. 1715 to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    The eleven-page main entry on Vaughan Williams (pp. 337–348) eschews biography in favor of stylistic overviews of the main genres to which he contributed (symphonies, opera, solo instrumental works, choral music), with additional commentary on individual pieces. Several other works are mentioned or briefly described throughout the book, though in less detail.

  • Fox-Strangways, A. H. “Ralph Vaughan Williams.” Music and Letters 1.2 (April 1920): 78–86.

    DOI: 10.1093/ml/1.2.78

    One of the first extended treatments of Vaughan Williams’s life and career as a whole. Greater focus on works written before World War I than typically given in later surveys, providing some useful critical opinions and attitudes about the works and practices on which the composer’s early reputation was founded.

  • Goddard, Scott. “Ralph Vaughan Williams, O.M.” In British Music of Our Time. Edited by A. L. Bacharach, 83–98. New York: Pelican, 1946.

    Flowery prose and occasional misperceptions belie a surprisingly insightful summary of the composer’s career through World War II. Better for the short descriptions of individual works than for the biographical passages.

  • Howes, Frank. The English Musical Renaissance. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.

    Like Caldwell 1998, features one main entry on the composer (“Holst and Vaughan Williams: Emancipation”) with many other references to him throughout the book. Primarily a stylistic and biographical overview, though almost hagiographic in places; worth reading in conjunction with Howes 1954 (cited under Works).

  • Morgan, Robert. Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. Norton Introduction to Music History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

    Short entry on the composer, focusing particularly on his interest in, and application of, indigenous English musical traditions (i.e., folk song and Renaissance-era choral music), and the larger place of his symphonies within the European tradition.

  • Trend, Michael. “Heirs and Rebels: Vaughan Williams, Holst, Butterworth.” In The Music Makers: The English Musical Renaissance from Elgar to Britten. By Michael Trend, 95–105. New York: Schirmer, 1985.

    Engaging introduction to the composer’s life, emphasizing biographical details and large-scale compositional practices rather than individual works. Makes more extensive use of secondary source materials (though these are typically uncited) than do most other entries in this category.

  • Whittall, Arnold. “Symphonic Music after 1918: I.” In Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century. By Arnold Whittall, 64–69. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    The main entry on Vaughan Williams deals almost exclusively with the Pastoral, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies and has a primarily structural focus within this deliberately limited scope. Most suitable for readers possessing at least basic knowledge of tonal harmony and theory.

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