At age six Ralph Vaughan Williams began music studies with his aunt. He furthered his education at the Royal College of Music where he received lessons from two fine English composers of the previous generation, Charles Stanford and Hubert Parry. While at the RCM, Vaughan Williams befriended another music student, composer Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams didn’t become a published composer himself until he was 30.
Fortunately, he remained active in his career until just before his death at age 85. Vaughan Williams made significant contributions during his long life as the preeminent English symphonist of his day, as a preserver of folk song, editor of The English Hymnal, teacher, writer, and music lecturer.
Of his nine symphonies, it is the Symphony No. 5 by Ralph Vaughan Williams that is recognized as his masterpiece in that genre. He worked on the symphony during the late 1930’s and finished the piece in the early part of 1943. The modal harmonies and lyrical style are clearly influenced by his study of English folk song and hymnody. Like many of his other compositions, Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony posses a mystical, sublime beauty, and a melancholy that is never maudlin.
Given the calm serenity of the symphony and its peaceful ending, you would never know it was completed the year before the Allied Forces landed on the Normandy coast during World War II.
Recommended: Ralph Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 5; Fantasy on a theme by Thomas Tallis. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; André Previn, conductor. Telarc Records, CD #80158