Ralph (pronounced “Raif”) Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire in 1872, descended from such distinguished figures as Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood III. Before he went to the Royal College of Music in 1890 he had learned the piano, violin, viola, organ, figured bass and harmony. After leaving the RCM he went to Trinity College, Cambridge and then back to the RCM for a further year. He was taught composition by Parry, Wood and Stanford . He later studied with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. He felt drawn irresistibly to English folksongs, a passion he shared with his friend Gustav Holst. By 1910 he had written the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and was an established writer, lecturer, music editor and folksong collector, as well as his composing.
After the First World War, having served in Salonika and in France, VW began to teach at the RCM, as well as conducting numerous societies including the Bach Choir and the Handel Society. He revised The Lark Ascending and A London Symphony and continued to compose. In 1922 a new friend, Adrian Boult, conducted the premiere of A Pastoral Symphony (No. 3), and his music was being performed in Salzburg, Venice, Prague, Geneva and London. From the 1920’s, VW specialised as a composer-conductor, particularly with works such as the London Symphony and Symphony No. 4 (1931-4). He was awarded many prizes, including honorary doctorates, the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1930), the Collard Life Fellowship (1934), the OM (1935), and the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (1955).
In 1939 Vaughan Williams objected to the plight of German refugees, and as a result his music was banned in Germany. He worked during the war for the benefit of interned musicians and helped other bodies which promoted music. His 6th Symphony was hailed as a ‘War Symphony’, although VW denied that it had been composed as such. He felt that more and more he was being treated as a ‘grand old man’, and objected to the idea by writing facetious programme notes. In 1951 his wife Adeline died at the age of 80, and married Ursula Wood 2 years later, moving to London. Although he was quite deaf, he enjoyed London and travelled abroad, lecturing at Cornell University in the USA, among others. His film music enjoyed great success, and he continued to be outspoken on subjects about which he felt strongly. Among these were the BBC’s Third Programme and the new organ for the Festival Hall. He also continued to write music, including three more symphonies. When he died in 1958, his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey near the graves of Purcell and Stanford.