Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Organ

December 28, 2019

It was the only paying job I’d ever had.

So said Ralph Vaughan Williams, speaking on the biographical DVD, O Thou Transcendent, as he talked about his first—and only—church organist position.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), arguably the most imaginative, prolific, and engaging British composer of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote so relatively few works for solo organ.1 Why was this? Other twentieth-century British composers (such as Matthias, Leighton, Wills, Jackson, and, especially, Howells) contributed to the organ’s literature in major ways. Some say Vaughan Williams did not like the organ. It is more accurate, I believe, to suggest he did not enjoy playing the organ. It might have been difficult for him; he was, after all, a large man and had (as noted by relatives speaking on the DVD) long fingers and “enormous” feet! Others suggest his personal brand of Christian agnosticism got in the way of composing solo organ music.2 But there are, of course, British organs in not only churches and cathedrals but also in many town halls and other non-religious concert venues. There was even an organ set up in his childhood home in Surrey so that he could practice.

Perhaps Vaughan Williams could not quite sort out how to translate some musical thoughts into organistic musical thoughts. In one of his many profoundly important observations on playing the organ, the late Erik Routley once wrote, “The organist must translate the [hymn] score into organ language [author’s emphasis] when he or she plays.”3

It is true that while many places in Vaughan Williams’s organ works have the ingredients for great musical expression, they are not entirely easy to bring off at the organ, due to matters of fingering, pedaling, and especially of texture. The same could be said of organ music by some other composers (Jehan Alain comes to mind), for which the player’s creative imagination must be called upon to combine with the composer’s notes.

It is the goal of this short work to consider Vaughan Williams’s views about and experiences with the organ and to examine the organ works that he left us. In so doing we will note some of the important influences on his compositional life, including his friendship with Gustav Holst, and especially his long and admiring relationship with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. And, we will see that the organ had an important role in Vaughan Williams’s life from his early teens through his funeral in Westminster Abbey in August 1958.

A final theory offered by some in explaining Vaughan Williams’s relatively small output for the organ is that he simply couldn’t play the organ well.

I cannot tell that I think he is justified in going in for an organist’s career which is his pet idea. He seems to me so hopelessly ‘unhandy’ . . . . I can never trust him to play a simple service for me without some dread at what he may do.

So wrote Alan Gray, Vaughan Williams’s organ teacher at Trinity College.4 Vaughan Williams himself, likely with a degree of false modesty, was critical of his own playing. We should take care, however, in believing that he was not a competent organist, as many factors suggest otherwise. To begin with a significant milestone, he studied for and passed (in 1898) the demanding Fellowship exams for the Royal College of Organists (only to resign his membership a few years later). John Francis, Vaughan Williams scholar, author, and vice president/treasurer of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, suggests that the situation above that Alan Gray complained of was due to the fact that Vaughan Williams was “unpredictable rather than technically incompetent.”5 Francis continues:

Self-deprecatory remarks by Vaughan Williams in later years have perhaps been taken too often at face value. We have no account of his [organ] playing by anybody who heard him play.

Further, Gray himself followed his lament by adding,

And this he combines with considerable knowledge & taste on organ and musical matters generally.6

This essay is not a biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams; fortunately, there are many excellent volumes available, some issued quite recently. Nevertheless, many events in his childhood, youth, and university days are intertwined with a study of his organ music. The reader will note at the end a list of some twenty-four sources consulted. Also particularly useful is the Timeline found on the website of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society: www.rvwsociety.com.

Vaughan Williams’s father was the vicar of Down Ampney (which Vaughan Williams pronounced “Amney”)7 in Gloucestershire. He died when his son was only two years old. His mother came from families of means: she was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood (of pottery fame) and the niece of Charles Darwin.8 Let Vaughan Williams’s own words summarize the next few years, as spoken in Tony Palmer’s video, O Thou Transcendent:9

At age 11 [1883] I was sent to a horrid school at Rottingdean. Three years later I arrived at Charterhouse [1887]. They still sing my hymns there to this day. From Charterhouse I was sent off to the RCM [1890], and there I met a fellow pupil called Gustav Holst.

In his youth Holst had also secured a church position involving considerable responsibility. Vaughan Williams’s niece, recalling these early days with Vaughan Williams, remarked,

We used to laugh about Uncle Ralph but he wasn’t very good at the organ, and yet he was always playing for funerals or weddings or things.10

While at Charterhouse he was once greatly impressed by a schoolmate’s playing of Bach’s “St. Anne” fugue—a work that would remain a favorite throughout his life and which he himself designated as the postlude for his memorial service in Westminster Abbey.11

During school holidays he practiced diligently, and the family even arranged for an organ to be installed at Leith Hill Place near Dorking, the seventeenth-century house in Surrey, wherein lived Wedgwoods and Darwins and which had become Vaughan Williams’s childhood home. (He later remarked that Dorking was “my home for nearly 40 years.”12) He inherited the house from his brother in 1944, whereupon he gave it to Britain’s National Trust.13 Breakfast at Leith Hill was at 7:30, and “Mr. Ralph” normally practiced beforehand. “The trouble about the early morning was finding a blower for the organ.”14 The butler, housemaids, groom, and gardener all avoided him!15 On Sundays he would practice long after the rest of the household had started to walk the two miles to church, usually arriving just as the service was starting. While a student at Charterhouse he was allowed to practice on the chapel organ. (One wonders what pieces he was working on!) In any case, from an early age Vaughan Williams seemed committed to the organ.

Throughout his childhood Vaughan Williams was steadfast in declaring his desire to be a professional musician. His family agreed, with the provision that he became an organist. (Thoughts were different in the late nineteenth century!) He later wrote:

I believe I should have made quite a decent fiddler but the authorities [!] decided that if I was to take up music at all the violin was too ‘doubtful’ a career and I must seek the safety of the organ stool, a trade for which I was entirely unsuited.16

It should be noted that when he subsequently left his only church position after only four or so years, it would seem that, although he disliked being an organist, there is no evidence that he disliked the organ.

The Royal College of Music

Vaughan Williams entered the Royal College of Music in 1890, just prior to his eighteenth birthday, and there became a pupil of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. His family wanted him to commute, which he usually did by rail but occasionally on foot! (Really? London to Leith Hill in Surrey—some thirty miles! Far from the 200 miles Bach supposedly walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck, but . . . ). He often announced his arrival at Leith Hill Place by first having a go at the organ.17

While studying at the Royal College of Music he also entered Trinity College, Cambridge (1892), and there experienced a “spiritual awakening.”

As my mother insisted that I had a ‘proper’ education, I was sent to Cambridge . . .
what an awakening that was! You might almost say a spiritual awakening. The sense that even if you didn’t believe in God, there was something beyond. Something mysterious.18

Vaughan Williams would have heard many organ recitals and services at Cambridge and in nearby Ely Cathedral (whose organist then was T. Tertius Nobel, later to become organist at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City). Undergraduates at Trinity College were obliged to attend chapel services, and Vaughan Williams sometimes avoided this duty by retreating to the organ loft. At Cambridge he studied the organ with Alan Gray19 (organist of Trinity College) and left the university with a B.Mus degree in 1894, returning to the Royal College of Music in 1895. There Vaughan Williams began composition study with Charles Villiers Stanford, with whom he had a famously difficult relationship; Stanford’s comment on Vaughan Williams’s music often consisted only of “All rot, me boy.” Vaughan Williams, however, was in later years to speak warmly of him.

The Church of Saint Barnabas, South Lambeth

Vaughan Williams was appointed organist here in 1895. Since this was to be his first and only church position it seems appropriate to include here some details of the place and his duties. It seems that he held this post until 1899. Vaughan Williams describes his work there, again with some false modesty:

I was appointed to my first and last organ post, at St. Barnabas, South Lambeth. As I already said, I never could play the organ, but this appointment gave me an insight into good and bad church music which stood me in good stead later on. I also had to train the choir and give organ recitals and accompany the services, which gave me some knowledge of music from the performer’s point of view.21

This was a large church (originally seating 1,500 people) on Guildford Road in South Lambeth. The parish, as confirmed by the Diocese of Southwark office, exists no more.

The building, however, is still there, having been gutted and refitted as a series of “council flats” (low-income housing). Interestingly, when I visited there, the building manager was astonished to learn that a very famous composer had once served as organist of the church! Vaughan Williams presided over a largish instrument built by Hill and rebuilt by Bishop.22 At the time of his tenure the church supported an ambitious music program with a sizeable budget. The duties, for which Vaughan Williams was paid a salary of £50 per year, were demanding and time consuming.23 His wife Adeline reported that he worked very hard and practiced on the organ up to five hours per day. For Vaughan Williams the salary was probably incidental to the experience.

He did not need to earn a living, having a healthy but not excessive private income. His work as an organist was for his continuing education, not to keep body and soul together.24

His time at Saint Barnabas was not easy. He told his friend Holst that his choristers were “louts” and the vicar “quite mad.” The vicar insisted on the organist’s taking communion; Vaughan Williams felt that he, as a principled atheist, could not. So he resigned, without any apparent regret.25 First, however, resolving to go abroad to study (with Max Bruch), he requested from the church, and was granted, a leave of absence. It is here that his friend Gustav Holst enters the picture.

Vaughan Williams and Holst

Vaughan Williams met Holst (1874–1934) at the Royal College of Music in 1895, and they remained fast friends for forty years until Holst’s death, going for extended hikes in the countryside and critiquing each other’s compositions. These “field days,” when they played and dissected their respective works were to prove invaluable to them both. Although in his youth Holst also had various tries at being a church organist, he was instead to become a professional trombonist (recommended as a treatment for his asthma).

He [Holst] left the College of Music to abandon the eminently respectable career of an organist . . . and to get at music from the inside as a trombonist in an orchestra. The very worst that a trombonist has to put up with is as nothing compared to what a church organist has to endure.26

In taking leave of the organ bench at Saint Barnabas it was natural for Vaughan Williams to think of his friend Holst. There are somewhat differing accounts of the manner in which he broached the subject with Holst. Heirs and Rebels,27 the collection of letters exchanged between the two composers, establishes some clarity. First, in a letter from Vaughan Williams to Holst, probably July 1897:

I am leaving this damned place [Saint Barnabas] in October and going abroad.

And then, contrary to some accounts in which he offered Holst the job, he in fact inquired about the latter’s interest:

Suppose you were offered it would you consider the matter? The screw [sic!] is £50 [per annum] and the minimum duties . . .

And here he lays out what sounds like a demanding list of tasks, working on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, as well as running the choral society and giving occasional organ recitals. Vaughan Williams later states:

Mind I AM NOT OFFERING IT YOU [VW’s caps] only [sic] if you would like it I will do my best to Back you.

He concludes by asking Holst to deputize for him while he is gone and provides many specific instructions on getting through the service (pitches, cues, etc.). He suggests beginning the morning service with a “short and easy voluntary” and concluding with a “long and difficult voluntary.” He notes about the choir:

Those louts of men will slope in about 8.45 and make you mad—the only ones who can sing will be away.

As a postscript VW adds, “The vicar is quite mad.” (Does any of this sound familiar to us today?) In any event, the position was not taken by Holst but probably by William H. Harris (later a faculty member at the Royal College of Music and organist at Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor).28

Vaughan Williams and Bach

Vaughan Williams showed nearly life-long fondness and admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whom he placed above all musicians. He regarded the Saint Matthew Passion, a work that he would conduct many times, to be Bach’s greatest achievement. Vaughan Williams had clear and strongly held thoughts on performing Bach’s music. First, he insisted that, for his audiences, the choral works, including the Matthew Passion, be sung in English (a preference shared by the late David Willcocks when he was director of the Bach Choir). He did not have patience with so-called “authentic performance practices” of early music.

Bach, though superficially he may speak the eighteenth-century language, belongs to no school or period.29

Vaughan Williams had a clear and oft-stated aversion to the harpsichord! He used the grand piano as the continuo instrument in his many Bach performances.

The harpsichord, however it may sound in a small room—and to my mind it never [author’s emphasis] has a pleasant sound—in a large concert room sounds just like the ticking of a sewing machine.30

He had similar thoughts about the so-called Baroque organ, which in the 1950s put him distinctly at odds with those planning the new organ for London’s Royal Festival Hall.

By the way, I see there is a movement afoot to substitute the bubble-and-squeak type of instrument for the noble diapason and soft mixtures of our cathedral organs.31

It is interesting to note that the opening recital on the Royal Festival Hall organ included Vaughan Williams’s Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes.

These views on instruments and performing practices may now be considered old-fashioned and out-of-date. They are, nonetheless, the beliefs of a great musician whose musical thoughts and ideas, planted in the mid-Victorian era, grew through more than a half-century of music making. “Vaughan Williams paid tribute to Bach practically, in his non-authentic but deeply moving performances of the major choral works at Dorking.”32 [For the Leith Hill Festivals, founded in 1905, which he conducted from 1905 to 1953.]

The Great War

The effect of war on musicians has been a topic of lengthy and interesting studies. In addition to the English composers who did not return from the First World War, the Second World War took the lives of many composers, including Jehan Alain and Hugo Distler, and affected the lives of countless others. Although space does not permit an excursion on this topic, it seems relative to touch on Vaughan Williams’s army service, which relates to his work as organist and church musician.

Vaughan Williams volunteered for military service in the Royal Army Medical Corps (in 1914, at age 42!) and from May 1915 was stationed at Saffron Walden where he spent considerable time at the organ of the parish church,33 finding refuge from the horrors of war through playing Bach. At the outbreak of war he was for a time stationed with his unit in Dorking. When there was a death in the company and no organist could be found for the service at Saint Martin’s Church, Vaughan Williams offered to play, providing he could have some volunteers to form a choir. In the same year he was posted to a field ambulance brigade. The following year he was sent to France (at the rank of lieutenant) and was involved in the Battle of the Somme.

Vaughan Williams’s patriotic spirit was evident during the Second World War through his composing of film music to aid the war effort and in many types of volunteer work. For example, he regularly gathered scrap metal. His Thanksgiving for Victory was written and performed in 1945 in celebration of the war’s end.

Vaughan Williams and church music

We have seen that, with the one exception of four or so years at the end of the nineteenth century, Vaughan Williams never functioned as a parish musician. Nonetheless, his many choral works, large (Hodie) and small (O Taste and See), enrich the repertory of all manner of choral organizations, ranging from parish singers to concert choirs. His choral music was written not so much for places (as with Howells’s many settings of the services for various cathedrals and collegiate chapels) but for occasions (coronations, victories, and more).

One of Vaughan Williams’s most monumentally important works in the field of church music was as editor of The English Hymnal. In 1904 a committee headed by the Reverend Percy Dearmer34 set about creating a new hymnbook, in succession to the venerable Hymns Ancient and Modern.35 Vaughan Williams was invited to be the musical editor and, by his own testimony, in the process learned a great deal about music—the good and the bad. He introduced several new tunes of his own creation as well as folk melodies, making it a thoroughly “English” book. He succeeded in purging the new hymnal of many poor Victorian hymn tunes (while retaining the better ones), and those which he was forced to keep he banned to the back of the book in a section he called “The Chamber of Horrors.”

Songs of Praise followed in 1925, once more with Dearmer as general editor and Vaughan Williams, assisted by Martin Shaw, the musical editor. It is said that Vaughan Williams was thrilled by the sound of an enthusiastic congregation singing a great hymn. The same trio of Dearmer, Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw worked together again to produce The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928.

Organist friends of Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams loved the typical cathedral organs of the first half of the twentieth century and liked hearing them played. In return, many cathedral organists enjoyed playing for him—often at night when the building was closed, often playing works of Bach. Such special playings took place often—by Walter Alcock at Salisbury; Herbert Sumsion in Gloucester; William McKie in Westminster Abbey, as they worked together preparing for the 1953 coronation. After Vaughan Williams’s death in 1958, it was decided to place his ashes next to those of Stanford and Purcell in the Abbey.

Other prominent organists who were friends and colleagues, and from whom he no doubt learned much about the instrument: Thomas Armstrong, Ivor Atkins, Harold Darke, Walford Davies, John Dykes Bower, Alan Gray, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Henry Ley, Christopher Morris, Boris Ord, Cyril Rootham, Martin Shaw, R. R. Terry, and George Thalban-Ball.36

In considering Vaughan Williams and the organ, Relf Clark suggests an interesting comparison with Elgar:37

Early in their careers, both were briefly the organist of a parish church. Neither of them appears to have enjoyed the experience very much. Both wrote for the instrument a handful of not entirely characteristic works. Both made notable use of the organ in a few orchestral scores. And both enjoyed the friendship and support of professional organists.

In a famous letter to The Daily Telegraph, January 14, 1951, Vaughan Williams makes some views clear, beginning with his thoughts on the “bubble and squeak” tones of continental organs.

Is it really proposed that we should abandon in favour of this unpleasant sound the noble diapasons and rich soft ‘mixtures’ of our best church organs?

He particularly admired the organ at Saint Michael’s Church, Cornhill (Hill; Rushworth & Dreaper), presided over by his friend Harold Darke, and believed it possessed the ideal English organ tone.

The works for organ

This essay offers not so much analyses but comments on Vaughan Williams’s music. For structural and thematic analyses of the organ works see the excellent articles by Hugh Benham [See “Sources and further reading,” B/2] and Relf Clark [See “Sources and further reading,” C]. It would seem that Vaughan Williams’s major organ works were conceived or written at Saint Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden, where he spent a great deal of time practicing while stationed there in 1915. The late Michael Kennedy, the chief authority on the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, cites the following as “The Organ Works:”

Three Preludes Founded On Welsh Hymn Tunes, published in 1920 by Stainer & Bell. The second prelude of the set, Rhosymedre, was played at Vaughan Williams’s funeral in 1958. Clark observes that the registrations in the score likely reflected the organ at Trinity College. He further suggests that Vaughan Williams first encountered these tunes when editing The English Hymnal (1906). The preludes are likely among the first works completed after his leaving the army in 1919.38

Bryn Calfaria is at once the most interesting musically and, although fun to play, nonetheless the most challenging to bring off at the organ. It is dramatic and improvisatory; fragments of the tune are given out through a thick and tangled texture. Like many other fine organ works (some of Alain’s come to mind) the piece involves the player as interpreter: adding musical imagination to the text.

Rhosymedre is the most well liked and often played of the three. Simple, quiet, and gently dance-like, it states the tune twice, in a straightforward manner.

Hyfrydol makes a bit of an odd conclusion to the set: a very thick-textured setting of the tune (difficult to play, especially for those with small hands) above a constantly moving pedal part that romps over two octaves (get out your Gleason book to help your feet prepare).

Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, composed in 1921 for orchestra and first performed in that year at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford. The orchestral version was performed first (conducted by the composer). The piece was then arranged for organ between 1921 and 1930 (completed in 1921, revised in 1923, published in 1930). Vaughan Williams told the dedicatee Henry Ley that the work was modeled on Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546.39 Ley (pronounced “Lee”), then organist at Christ Church, Oxford, commented on the piece’s difficulty. According to Ley, Vaughan Williams said that the work was written in 1915 while he was stationed at Saffron Walden using the organ at Saint Mary’s Church.40 The prelude and fugue together occupy some ten minutes.

The Prelude is very well written for the organ. Vaughan Williams was attentive to details of registration (including frequent use of manual 16′s) and manual divisions. The piece has quite a lot of bitonal dissonance. Ley was right: it is not easy play, due to the constantly changing chord colors, large amount of chromaticism, and fast contrapuntal passages. Vaughan Williams employed chords in parallel sweeping lines, often in contrary motion. Thick homophonic passages alternate with longer sections of thinner, busy counterpoint, generating an ABABA design. The quick B sections are terrifically fast at the specified tempo of quarter = 120 beats per minute. Thinking I could not play it that fast, I initially suspected a case of “composer tempo overreach.” David Briggs, however, manages these brilliantly on the two-CD set of the complete organ music (original and transcriptions) of Vaughan Williams, Bursts of Acclamation. (Albion ALBCD021/2, available from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, https://

The prelude is somewhat impressionistic in sound, using parallelism, tonal vagueness (often resulting from mixed modes), the use of ninth and major-seventh chords, as well as tetra- and pentatonic scales. The result: the prelude clearly sounds like Vaughan Williams. It ends suddenly in C major, a somewhat astonishing tonality not really heard before in the piece.

For someone who was a master at contrapuntal writing and an ardent admirer of Bach, Vaughan Williams seems not to have written very many fugues. This fugue is a good one, a double fugue in fact, whose two subjects are first treated separately and then combined at the climax. It begins not so much in C minor but C Aeolian. The omnipresent triplets against duplets, which get a bit wearing (to this player, at least), is an element in both fugue subjects. Parallel chords in contrary motion, drawn from the prelude, occasionally interrupt the rather dissonant fugal entries.

Two Organ Preludes, founded on Welsh Folk Songs, published in 1956. These are Romanza (“The White Rock”) and Toccata (“St. David’s Day”). These works are generally regarded as being less than indicative of the composer’s skill and imagination and not very “organistic.”

• In 1964 Oxford University Press published A Vaughan Williams Organ Album (still in print) consisting of transcriptions as well as the two organ preludes of 1956. Various composers, including Henry Ley, have made organ transcriptions of several of Vaughan Williams’s orchestral works.41

• Kennedy mentions an Organ Overture, from 1890 (the manuscript of which is in the British Library).42

A Wedding Tune for Anne, 1943 (contained in A Vaughan Williams Organ Album).

• Various incomplete sketches left at the time of his death.

Returning to the opening question

There are two Vaughan Williams organ works of relatively major stature, dating from during and just after the time of the First World War: the preludes on Welsh hymns and the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor. A generation later would come Benjamin Britten’s comparable opus, Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria (1946). They have not much in common, save being one of few examples of their masters’ contributions to the canon of organ music. Both composers wrote for situations or performances: Vaughan Williams for the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford, for example; Britten’s was a commission from Saint Matthew’s, Northampton (for which he had earlier written the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, containing some of the most original and dramatic writing for organ in any choral work). These preludes and fugues, valued for their singular stature, are nonetheless not entirely representative of their composers’ genius, language, invention, and musical imaginations.

Douglas Fairhurst suggests that Vaughan Williams, as a great artist, was more at ease and naturally expressive having a larger canvass for his music. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams commented that, while it was unorthodox to consider canonization for a non-believer, the Christian church owed a great deal to him for his contributions.43 In any case, after his death in 1958 Vaughan Williams’s ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey, appropriately near those of Stanford and Purcell. Of special note: his was the first funeral service held in the Abbey for a commoner since that of Purcell, nearly 300 years earlier.44

Supplement I: some other works in which the organ is prominent

The organ has played a central role in many centuries of choral music. Vaughan Williams realized the expressive and dramatic powers of the organ and used them to good effect in some of his orchestral works as well.

Job, A Masque for Dancing. In Scene VI (the Dance of Job’s Comforters) we see/hear a vivid representation of Satan and his retinue in Hell. Included is a part for “Full Organ with Solo Reeds Coupled,” supplementing the full orchestra.

A Vision of Aeroplanes45 is a substantial late work (1956) for chorus and organ, setting familiar words from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel. It opens with a dramatic, dissonant organ solo that, as with subsequent organ interludes, reminds one of the organ’s use in Howells’s A Sequence for St. Michael, to be written some five years later.

A Sea Symphony includes passages for organ, more for support, as a member of the orchestra, than for effect.

• However, the dramatic blast of chords occurring about 3/4th through the “Landscape” (Lento) movement in Sinfonia Antarctica, shows the organ as hair-raising, important, and soloistic.

Supplement II: selected choral works in which the organ has a prominent role

[These lists extracted from Neil Butterworth: Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Guide To Research. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1990.]

Vexilla Regis (for the Cambridge B.Mus), 1894

Mass (for the Cambridge D.Mus), 1899

Toward the Unknown Region, 1907

Fantasia on Christmas Carols, 1912

Sancta Civitas, 1923–1925

Three Choral Hymns, 1929

Flourish for a Coronation, 1937

Six Choral Songs: To be sung in time of war, 1940

England, My England, 1941

Thanksgiving for Victory (later A Song of Thanksgiving), 1945

Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, 1949

Fantasia (Quasi Variazione) on the “Old 104th Psalm Tune,” 1949

Hodie, 1953–1954

Supplement III: some choral music for the church

O Clap Your Hands, 1920

Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge, 1921

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (The Village Service), 1925

The Pilgrim Pavement, 1934

O How Amiable, 1934

Festival Te Deum in F, 1937

All Hail the Power (Miles Lane), 1938

Services in D Minor, 1939

Hymn for St. Margaret, 1948

The Old Hundredth Psalm, 1953

Te Deum and Benedictus, 1954

A Vision of Aeroplanes, 1956


1. In this he does not stand alone, of course. The same could be said of RVW’s best friend, Gustav Holst (who around 1930 started what he hoped would be an organ concerto). We wish Alain and Distler could have had longer lives in which to continue their composing for organ. And, although the organ parts in many of Benjamin Britten’s choral works are tour de forces of rhythm, texture, and organ color, Britten, too, left us a regrettably small number of organ works (which reveal relatively little of his musical genius).

2. Many have pondered this seeming contradiction between belief and the creative settings of sacred texts. One factor: he had, of course, a life-long love affair with Elizabethan English.

3. Church Music and the Christian Faith, by Erik Routley. Carol Stream, Illinois: Agape, 1978, p. 105.

4. Quoted in Aldritt, p. 55.

5. Francis/2. [The booklet pages are not numbered.]

6. RVW/3, p. 42.

7. Palmer.

8. Reference to the famous remark about Darwin is irresistible. As a child, VW asked his mother what was all the fuss about Great-Uncle Charles? She replied that the Bible says the earth was created in six days; Great-Uncle Charles believes it took somewhat longer.

9. Palmer.

10. Ibid.

11. Aldritt, p.30.

12. Palmer.

13. VW/3, p.258.

14. Ibid., p. 28.

15. As stated by J. Ellis Cook, son of the gardener at Leith Hill Place; quoted in Tributes, p. 25.

16. VW1, p. 134.

17. Aldritt, p. 37.

18. Palmer.

19. “Our friendship survived his despair at my playing and I became quite expert at managing the stops at his voluntaries and organ recitals.” And then wrote Alan Gray: “I cannot tell him that I think he is justified in going in for an organist’s career which is his pet idea. He seems to me so hopelessly ‘unhandy.’ I can never trust him to play a simple service for me without some dread as to what he may do.” Aldritt, p. 55. VW clearly achieved significant improvement by 1898, when he passed the F.R.C.O. exams!

20. The British title “organist” usually implies “organist and choirmaster.”

21. VW/1, p. 146.

22. Clark, p. 9.

23. In addition to services, these included four choral rehearsals each week as well as giving occasional organ recitals. Kennedy, p. 41.

24. Heffer, p. 18.

25. Ibid., p. 19.

26. VW/1, p. 71.

27. VW/4, pp. 5–6.

28. F/5, p. 9.

29. VW/1, p. 122.

30. Ibid., p. 123.

31. Ibid.

32. Mellers, p. 158.

33. F/2 (pages unnumbered).

34. Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Primrose Hill, where his organist was Martin Shaw.

35. Hymns Ancient & Modern, first published in 1861, continues to be found, in subsequent editions, in some British church pews today, often next to The English Hymnal.

36. All listed in B/3, Personalia, pp. 315–345.

37. Clark, p. 7.

38. Ibid., p. 10.

39. F/4, p. 8.

40. F/3. p. 16.

41. For details of these, see Randy L. Neighbarger’s, “Organ Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Descriptive List of Original Works and Transcriptions,” The Diapason, October 1991, p. 10.

42. K/2, p. 3.

43. Palmer.

44. Ibid.

33. Written for RVW’s good friend Harold Drake, organist at the Church of Saint Michael’s, Cornhill, the work sets the dramatic account of the whirlwind, cloud, and fire from the book of Ezekiel.

Sources and further reading

A: Aldritt, Keith. Vaughan Williams: Composer, Radical, Patriot—A Biography. Ramsbury, Wiltshire: Robert Hale Books, 2015.

B/1: Barber, Robin. “Vaughan Williams in Hamburg, 1938: A Brush with Nazi Germany.” Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, Issue 66, June 2016.

B/2: Benham, Hugh. “Music for Solo Organ by Ralph Vaughan Williams.” Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, Issue 55, October 2012, 3–8.

B/3: Butterworth, Neil. Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Guide to Research. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990.

C: Clark, Relf. “Vaughan Williams and the Organ: An Anniversary Review.” Organists’ Review, August 2008, 7-15.

F/1: Francis, John. Vice-Chairman of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society (UK) in correspondence with the author.

F/2: Francis, John. Notes in the booklet accompanying Bursts of Acclamation, two CD recordings of organ works by RVW published by Albion Records.

F/3: Francis, John. “Composers of the Great War Revisited.” Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, Issue 65, February 2016, 15–16.

F/4: Francis, John. “Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Organ.” Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, Issue 63, June 2015, 3–11.

F/5: Francis, John. “A Question of Chronology.” Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, Issue No. 74, February 2019, 9.

H/1: Heffer, Simon. Vaughan Williams. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000.

H/2: Holmes, Paul. Holst; Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers. London: Omnibus Press, 1997.

K/1: Kennedy, Michael. The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964; 2nd edition,1996.

K/2: Kennedy, Michael. A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

M/3: Manning, David, ed. Vaughan Williams on Music. Oxford University Press, 2008.

M: Marshall, Em. Music in the Landscape. London: Robert Hale, 2011.

M/2: Mellers, Wilfrid. Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1989.

N: Neighbarger, Randy L. “Organ Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Descriptive List of Original Works and Transcriptions,” The Diapason, October 1991, 10–11.

T: Tributes to Vaughan Williams: 50 Years On. A reprint of The RCM Magazine, Vol. LV, No. 1, Easter Term 1959.

P: Palmer, Tony. O Thou Transcendent (a video commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death). Isolde Films, 2007.

VW/1: Some Thoughts on Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, With Writings on Other Musical Subjects. London: Oxford University Press, 1953.

VW/2: National Music and Other Essays. London: Oxford University Press, 1987.

VW/3: Vaughan Williams, Ursula. R. V. W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1964.

VW/4: Heirs and Rebels: Letters written to each other and occasional writings on music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Edited by Ursula Vaughan Williams and Imogen Holst. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Photograph of Ralph Vaughan Williams by Frank Chappelow (used with permission)

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