Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Eminent composer and folk-song collector, Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 at the vicarage in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, the youngest of the three children of the Revd Arthur Charles Vaughan Williams (1834-1875) and his wife, Margaret Wedgwood (1842-1937). When Arthur died in 1875, his widow and children moved to Leith Hill Place, Surrey, Margaret's family home. In 1883 Ralph began preparatory school at Field House, Rottingdean, Sussex, and early in 1887 he went on to Charterhouse School, which he attended for three and a half years. He played in the orchestra at Charterhouse and in 1888 organized a concert there which included a piano trio he had composed.
Vaughan Williams's real professional formation did not begin until 1890, when he entered the Royal College of Music. Here he studied his craft with the most authoritative British composer of the day, Hubert Parry. Even broader horizons opened up in 1892 when he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to take a MusB (1894) and to read for a BA in history, in which he graduated with a second in 1895. After Cambridge he went back to the Royal College for about a year, this time as a pupil of Charles Stanford, another dominant figure in British musical life of the mid-1890s and later to become involved in the formation of the Folk-Song Society in 1898.
Ralph had been aware of both John and Lucy Broadwood's published collections of folk songs from an early age and became caught up in a burgeoning interest in them towards the end of the century. So much so that he began lecturing in the subject in 1903 and collected his first song in December that year, 'Bushes and Briars' from Charles Pottipher (maybe Pottiphar) at Ingrave in Essex. During the next ten years he went on to amass over 800 songs and carols, together with some singing games and country dance tunes, principally in East Anglia, Sussex and Herefordshire, sometimes in the company of other eminent collectors such as George Butterworth and Ella Mary Leather. The First World War really put an end to this chapter in his life, although the influence of folk song stayed with him and was significant in a number of his most famous orchestral works. It was also fundamental in his editing of The English Hymnal, published in 1906, for which he borrowed tunes from a number of prominent collectors of the period.
It should be noted that, although he was never comfortable with or even approving of the phonograph as a means of recording folk music in the field, he did use it and at least two recordings survive: 'Bushes and Briars' and 'Tarry Trousers' from Mrs Humphries at Ingrave, Essex. These recordings are available on the CD A Century of Song (EFDSS CD02, 1998), which includes a number of other wax cylinder recordings by Cecil Sharp and others.
When Ralph Vaughan Williams died in 1958 he was President of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. It was decided that year to rename the their library in his honour, even though Ralph's folk music and other manuscripts have been deposited subsequently with the British Library. Microfilm copies of his folk song notebooks are available at VWML.