Thursday, May 21, 2015

English Folk Found in Classical Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) is another name we can connect with this national music movement in England at the turn of the twentieth century. He was good friends with Gustav Holst, whom we talked about last time, and perhaps even considered more nationalistic in his output.

Vaughan Williams began his musical studies early with an aunt. Like Holst, Vaughan Williams endured criticism early on, his elders not confident in his musical potential. Once he decided to seek success through building on England’s musical past, his career began to fall into place. Early on in the century, Vaughan Williams worked as the musical editor for the new English Hymnal. During this time, he learned about hymnody and some of the successful English composers several centuries before his time. This sparked his interest in composing his own hymn tunes, arranging folk songs as hymns, and finding old hymns that he could add to the new hymnal.

Vaughan Williams essentially revitalized English composition by reaching back to those English composers who came before him. A perfect example of this is his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which he based on a Tallis hymn found while working on the English Hymnal. He chose to maintain the hymn’s Phrygian mode and used a fantasia form known for its thematic development, which was quite popular with early English composers. This helped establish that folk element, pulling from England’s native past. You can listen to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis below. What other of his works do you enjoy?


  1. "Fantasia on Greensleeves" Some say the anonymous "Greensleeves" might have been composed by King Henry Vlll. If composed by a king is it still a folk song?

    1. Great piece! I think there are many pieces considered "folk" that have been named so by culture over the years, even if the composer is known. Stephen Foster is another great example of a composer whose music is often considered folk.