When Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872, England was known as the ‘land without music’.
Since the time of Henry Purcell 200 years earlier, the country had not produced a single composer of any note – and this during a period that saw the rapid development of classical music in France, Italy, and especially in Germany and Austria.
By the time Vaughan Williams enrolled at the Royal College of Music in the late 1880s, there were the beginnings of a revival with the work of Charles Stanford and Edward Elgar. But these composers still looked to German models for their compositional style.
Stanford and others had begun to tap into English folk music for inspiration, but they did so in a rather patronising and detached manner.
They set up The Folk Society in London. But they never ventured out to speak to the ‘folk’ or to listen to them singing or playing their music. As a result they developed a romanticised notion of what folk music was, which also dovetailed with a reactionary idea of ‘Englishness’.
Vaughan Williams was the first to travel to Essex, the West Country and elsewhere to collect folk songs and listen to ordinary people singing them. In the space of just a few years he noted down some 800 songs, which otherwise would have been lost to us.
He also discovered that folk music did not obey the supposedly ‘natural’ laws of classical form – something that the London elite had refused to acknowledge.
This was important at a time when the classical tradition was in crisis and composers were struggling to find new ways to express themselves.
The composers of the English establishment, such as Elgar, remained stuck in the musical style of the past and were unable to relate to a new age.
The politics behind these differing approaches is also revealing. Elgar was a conservative nationalist, whereas Vaughan Williams was a lifelong socialist who was principled enough to refuse a knighthood.
His socialist commitment was further reinforced by his experience of the horrors of First World War. He spent the war as an ambulance volunteer in the killing fields of the Western Front.
Much later he described how he would drive every morning at daybreak over the pastoral landscape of Flanders, only to be confronted by the sea of dead bodies from the previous day’s battles.
His third symphony, The Pastoral, is often held up as a prime example of the ‘cow-pat’ style of English romantic takes on the countryside.
But in a letter to a friend he stated, that far from it being about ‘lambkins frolicking about’, the symphony expressed the sense of loss of a rural idyll shattered by the mechanised violence of modern warfare – something he had witnessed in the war.
By the 1920s Vaughan Williams had become acknowledged as one of England’s leading composers and feted with praise by the establishment.
But in his next symphony, written in 1934, he shocked the smug world of English classical music by adopting a modernist style full of harsh dissonances. Vaughan Williams always denied that the fourth symphony reflected contemporary events.
But the audience could not fail to hear a world in crisis – and the growth of fascism across Europe – reflected in the music.What makes his turn to this new modernist style all the more impressive is that he was already in late middle age at the time.
Artists, especially ones who have achieved success on the scale that Vaughan Williams had, are usually unable to engage with new developments in style and form.
But his earlier discoveries in folk music and his political engagement led him to remain open to a changing society and the new art that it produced.
The fourth symphony, together with Job: A Masque for Dancing, which was inspired by paintings by William Blake and composed at about the same time, stand out as the first examples of English music engaging with modernity.
Other works that express the pain and trauma of the age include the song-cycle On Wenlock Edge and the Sixth Symphony.
It is telling that English composers who came after did not follow the conservative nationalism of Elgar.
Instead, those who took English classical music forwards after the Second World War – such as Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and Harrison Birtwistle – all looked to Vaughan Williams as their inspiration, politically and musically.
In the year of the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death, the image that will be presented to us is of a typical ‘English gentleman’ who expressed the ‘English national spirit’.
Certainly there are works like the popular The Lark Ascending and Fantasia On Greensleeves, which do accommodate to this view.
But we should celebrate the man who more than anyone else brought English music into the 20th century – and who in many of his works gave voice to those who suffered or were simply ignored in the age of industrial capitalism.
Vaughan Williams – Complete Symphonies CD Box set performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra is now available
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