WAR COMPOSERS: Ralph Vaughan Williams

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In the first half of the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams was seen as the ‘grand man’ of English classical music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams 12 October 1872 - 26 August 1958
Ralph Vaughan Williams 12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958

Though his reputation waned among some later in his life, he was unquestionably at the forefront of a second wave of young English composers who, at the turn of the 20th century, were engaged in an effort to redefine, and create a new sound for, English music – one that would break away from the strong German influences that had been so prominent during the Victorian age.


One way of doing this was to delve into the treasure-trove of English folk songs, using those melodies and ideas as a basis for creating new works. There was a precedent for this in several other European countries, including Hungary, Bohemia, and Germany itself.

Vaughan Williams, along with several enthusiastic colleagues (including George Butterworth), was an avid collector of these folk tunes during the Edwardian period. He wandered country roads and visited small villages in search of musical treasures: tunes that had been passed on by word-of mouth, through the generations.

Among the elderly residents of these rural communities, Vaughan Williams found hundreds of songs, and saved them from extinction.


With increasing political tensions and the eventual outbreak of war in 1914, the desire to purge England of all things German became much more pronounced. German musicians were fired from orchestras, and sometimes-inferior English replacements were hired to fill the gaps. Even English people with German names (such as Vaughan Williams’ best friend, Gustav Holst) came under suspicion.

As young men flocked to enlist in the autumn of 1914, Vaughan Williams also felt the call. But at the age of 42, he was already too old for fighting, at least in those early stages of the war. He was, however, able to convince the Army to take him on as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and he served as an ambulance driver in France, and later in Greece.

Enlisting as a private, he was noticeably older than most of his fellow servicemen. This age difference did not bother him, but it made some of the physical demands of his job more stressful.

He was deployed to France in June 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme. After the fateful events of summer 1916, Vaughan Williams was sent to Greece, where he continued with his medical services, but also did such tedious work as filling in puddles to prevent the spread of mosquitoes.

Ralph Vaughan Williams in uniform, sitting under a tree in 1915.
Ralph Vaughan Williams in uniform, sitting under a tree in 1915.

In 1917, he returned to England and received a commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. He saw further action from March 1918 onwards, and these front-line experiences also affected him physically, damaging his hearing (though the effects of this would not be noticeable for many years, he did in fact suffer from partial deafness later in life).

Vaughan Williams managed to weather the experiences of war and survive, unlike many of his friends. In the aftermath of the Armistice, he took on the role of director of music for the First Army, until his demobilisation in February 1919. He had been busy promoting musical activities among the soldiers throughout the war, so this was a logical role for him to assume.


Vaughan Williams did not actively compose music during the war. But he gradually resumed his efforts on return to civilian life.

One of his most notable pieces from the immediate post-war years was his Pastoral Symphony, which (despite its title) had little to do with the country imagery or folk song influence of some of his pre-war works. Though music critics did not understand it at the time, Vaughan Williams later explained that this symphony was his representation of the desolation of the battlefield.

In context: Vaughan Williams and the Royal Medical Corps

The Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) was formed during the Boer War, being a fusion of the Medical Staff Corps and the Medical Staff into a single Corps by Royal Warrant on 23 June 1898. Lieutenant-General Sir Alfred Keogh oversaw its operations during the First World War, and he is credited with obtaining recognition of the Corp’s crucial role in the war effort. This legitimacy made the RAMC popular; by the war’s end, there were some 13,000 RAMC Officers and over 154,000 members of other ranks.

Vaughan Williams worked as an ambulance driver for the RAMC. He worked mainly at night, sometimes in highly dangerous conditions. He was often exposed to the bloody results of the fighting, seeing the wounded and the dead, and loading them onto stretchers. Though not afraid, these experiences profoundly affected him; he rarely spoke of them after the war.

He said that it was ‘wartime music, a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres … and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset – it’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted’.

The piece consists of four movements, all at a slow tempo, which was unconventional for a symphony, but appropriate for what some would later call his ‘war requiem’.

Vaughan Williams would carry his wartime experiences with him for the rest of his life, and with the coming of the Second World War, he would once again feel called to duty, actively serving on the home front in his 70s. In 1940, he wrote the score for the propaganda film 49th Parallel, and he celebrated the end of the war with his Thanksgiving for Victory, commissioned by the BBC.

By Tim Rayborn

This article is from the June 2016 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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