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Review: Vaughan Williams: Composer, Radical, Patriot – a Biography, by Keith Alldritt

On the front cover of Keith Alldritt’s absorbing biography of one of England’s greatest composers of the 20th century is a black-and-white photograph showing a late middle-aged Ralph Vaughan Williams looking very much the comfortably attired country squire. No surprises there, then, for someone so associated with traditional, nostalgic pieces such as The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.

What is a surprise is the inclusion of the word ‘radical’ in the book’s subtitle. Born in 1872, a relative of the Wedgwoods and the Darwins –‘born with a small silver spoon in his mouth’, by his own admission – he attended Charterhouse, Cambridge and the Royal College of Music, studying with Parry (inspirational) and Stanford (initially, not so inspirational). Nothing radical there.

Early success, service (at the age of 42) in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWI, and the establishment of life outside London in rural Surrey are all outlined within their worldwide historical context, but things only become intriguing (and radical?) in 1938, when Vaughan Williams received a proposal for a ballet from a poet, Ursula Wood. Both were married (Ralph for almost 40 years to Adeline Fisher, whom he had met at Cambridge) and Ursula in her mid-20s (his fondness for and flirtation with much younger women is highlighted throughout – I wonder how that would play in 2020?). They fell in love, and eventually a successful ménage à trois was established. Following Adeline’s death, Ralph and Ursula married, enjoying five enormously fulfilling years of collaborative work, travel, and accolades until his death in 1958.

Alldritt describes many of Vaughan Williams’ pieces in clear, non-academic language, allowing readers a sense of their soundworlds. One fascinating art form that opened up for him in later life was that of film. If you don’t know his atmospheric score for Scott of the Antarctic, later to become the foundation for his astonishing 7th Symphony, Sinfonia Antartica, give it a go one cold winter evening!