‘O Thou Transcendent’: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams

‘O Thou Transcendent’: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams, dir. Tony Palmer (Palmer DVD)

November 2009

The piece of music which is repeatedly voted England’s favourite is The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams – or VW, as he is often referred to. It is right  that the English people have taken his music to their hearts as he, more than any other composer, stands for what the poet William Blake meant when he preached ‘mental fight’ on behalf of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. It is no coincidence that VW set Blake to music, for they both belong to a tradition that is deeply patriotic without being narrowly nationalistic. I suspect that the affection that so many feel for The Lark Ascending arises from its evocation of the English countryside, for what’s left of it becomes all the more precious as we pollute, degrade and ‘develop’ the rest. Nor should we overlook the fact that it was written just at the start of the First World War – in which the pacifist composer participated as a stretcher bearer – and came to acquire deeper and wider significance as a lament for a vanished Eden, a lost innocence.

The occasion of these comments is the release on DVD of Tony Palmer’s long, leisurely film about VW. Not only does it document the life with a wealth of archive film and photography, but it includes interviews with people who either knew him (eg, his second wife, Ursula) or were influenced by him (eg, the composers John Rutter and John Adams), along with extracts from filmed performances of the major works.

VW’s love of the English musical tradition was initially prompted by his concern about the dominance of European influences, notably German and Austrian: he took exception to the excessive deference of his countrymen to Brahms, Mahler and others. This love took two main forms. Firstly, VW wanted to rescue from generations of condescension the rural culture which expressed itself in folk music: he was the man most responsible for the recovery of hundreds of songs that might otherwise have been lost once the singers who knew them by heart had died. It is fitting that one of the interviewees in the film is Richard Thompson, a pioneer of English ‘folk-rock’: he recalls working in Germany prior to his musical career, and having to defend VW’s music against the accusation made by his colleagues that the music was typically English in being ‘sentimental’.

Secondly, VW wanted to revive English sacred music. He was particularly keen on the Tudor period, and greatly admired the religious songs of Thomas Tallis – composing his haunting Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis in 1910. Prior to that, he accepted the role of musical editor for The English Hymnal (1906), which contains some of England’s favourite hymns, with original melodies by VW himself in many cases. One thinks, for instance, of ‘Come Down, Oh Love Divine’ and ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’.

Palmer’s film celebrates all this. In doing so, it radically revises VW’s reputation. It is often said that his love of England renders his music safe and predictable. Far from it. His great-uncle was Charles Darwin, whose work fascinated him; so he knew all about the long, withdrawing roar of what Matthew Arnold called ‘the sea of faith’. Indeed, he comes across in this film as a complex figure: simultaneously a nature mystic, a cultural Christian and an anxious agnostic. It is no coincidence that the chorus from his first symphony which gives the film its title, ‘O Thou Transcendent’, is based upon a work by the American poet Walt Whitman, whose spirituality was unorthodox, to put it mildly.

Moreover, the man who saw unspeakable horrors in the trenches went on to write some very dark music indeed – for example, the sixth symphony – which conveyed his sense that civilisation was on the verge of collapse and that the earth was heading for catastrophe. It certainly does not make comfortable listening. He deserves our respect and gratitude, and this fascinating film suggests that we are finally able to do him justice.

Laurence Coupe