Eh, what the hell, let's do the great Ralph Vaughan Wililiams tonight.
The popular conception of Vaughan Williams is as confused as that of Holst. We know him for a handful of extremely atypical works that make us think he's a composer of lethargically pastoral works that have about as much to do with the real RVW as The Planets do with Holst or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik has to do with Mozart. Vaughan Williams is the subject of perhaps the single greatest compositorial putdown in music history, when upon hearing it, Aaron Copland is said to have commented that 'listening to Vaughan Williams's fifth symphony is like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes." Copland should talk.... Copland too is far more complex than just his pastoral classics, but Copland never truly ascended to RVW's ecstatic heights either.
The real Vaughan Williams was the English Bartok or Mussorgsky, who took the folk music of the British isles in its unadorned state and gave it a classical framework which smoothed nothing of its strangeness or its acerbicity.
Composing is one of the very few professions for which it is hard to predict a peak of a composer's powers. So many of the greatest died early, and so many lesser-known composers died early who might have become great. The morbidly obese Vaughan Williams was fully great by 40, but he did not truly hit the peak of his powers until the secure, calm and privileged world of wealth in which formed him was fully destroyed. He was already 60 or 70 by the time he wrote the greatest music of his life, an age by which the majority of the great names of music history had well since passed on. And as only true genius can, RVW rose to the challenges of a new era with an entirely new kind of music. This is not merely a writer of light music, this is one of the very greatest, most visionary composers of the 20th century, and a composer whom by 1940 had fully let go of the 19th.
The Sixth Symphony is, perhaps next to the second, my single favorite of his symphonies. Written in the years immediately post World War II, it can be interpreted as a seer's vision of World War III, complete with explosions, advancing armies, and air battles. But in perhaps the most extraordinary movement RVW ever wrote, it ends with ten minutes of an orchestra playing at no dynamic past pianissimo, perhaps a vision of post-nuclear holocaust, a world without life, when all is null and void.
But the second, the London Symphony, is perhaps his masterpiece, one of the very greatest symphonies ever written: programmatically depicting a day in the life of pre-War London, and yet even the London Symphony has deep intimations of what is to come. Vaughan Williams said that the quiet final moments are inspired by H G Wells's novel Tono-Bungay:
"The last great movement in the London Symphony in which the true scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up ... Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes."
RVW's second symphony was performed just a few months before World War I. It is almost impossible to historically minded readers to read those lines and not think of Sir Edward Gray's intimation on the eve of World War I that 'the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.' ...and of course, there's the Fourth Symphony, premiered in 1937, a half-hour long orchestral howl from the man who wrote Greensleeves. It seems odd to take Vaughan Williams of all composers to task for being too abrasive, but so unvaried is it in tone that the great miracle of the piece is that it's by the composer of The Lark Ascending and the Greensleeves arrangement. Or the 9th Symphony, which I've heard one major conductor describe over the radio as a description of the spiritual process of dying.
One can find similar intimations of a dark future in the ecstatic 1920's work Sancta Civitas, yet another choral work that sets the Book of Revelation to music, and yet sets it with a kind of hope and yearning that leaves the door open for the apocalypse to transcend its dark premise. And of course, there is Dona Nobis Pacem 'Give us Peace' from the 1930s, which alternates settings of the Latin Mass with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Or his final choral work, the Three Shakespeare Songs, which sets Ariel's creepy lyrics from The Tempest with appropriate otherworldliness. with but a few chords, RVW intimates Shakespeare's immortal mortality.
Vaughan Williams does not belong to England, he belongs to the entire world. Like composers from Beethoven and Mahler to Stravinsky and Bartok, Vaughan Williams dipped his pen into a deep river flowing with alchemical ink that let him see into the distant future simultaneous to the distant past. Like all those other masters, there are other sides to their music - genius is janus-faced and if you think you've mapped every facet of a truly great artist, you will inevitably soon discover another, but In this music, as in that of all the very greatest composers, there is the force of prophecy. And yes, Ralph Vaughan Williams belongs in any conversation of the all-time greatest, and one day, now or generations hence, he will be recognized for the depth and breath of exactly the musician of greatness he is.