Vaughan Williams and Me

I love the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and have done so for most of my life.

His music seems to resonate with what lies deeply within, almost as if I hear it in my bone marrow. His music seems to appear on occasions where I would not have expected it, but find it has done so most appropriately. I also find I respond to the words he uses for his choral works, especially the poems of Walt Whitman.

His setting of the poems of George Herbert as ‘The Five Mystical Songs‘ contains a verse which has very much been one of the fundamental values or philosophies that has informed my life:

Can there be any day but this, Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss: There is but one, and that one ever.

 My first encounter with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams may have been his setting of Greensleeves, which I remember as the music for a serial on the ABC Children’s program back in the 1950s. I would have also enjoyed hymns set to his music, singing them in the school chapel choir during my secondary schooling.

However, the more profound memory is that of hearing the Sydney University choir sing his “Donna Nobis Pacem” in the Great Hall of Sydney University, during my time there as an undergraduate in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I have described this encounter with Vaughan Williams elsewhere as “one of the early experience of the rapture of being alive, a new world of sound in words, the like of which I had not, until then, experienced”. I recall also being enthralled by his “Sir John in Love”, also in the Great Hall of Sydney University, around that time.

So began a long friendship with poet Walt Whitman and music maker Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The ‘Lark ascending’, the Fifth Symphony and the ‘Five Mystical Songs’ became firm favourites. On a four-week trek into the Himalayas in December 1970 I took with me a cassette recorder and tapes of these works. I would ration myself to one piece per evening, in order to make the batteries last the whole trek. When walking alone on a trail that gave me views of the high Himalaya, I would sing at the top of my voice one of the Five Mystical Songs.  

I recall how I responded to Vaughan Williams music in my writings and jottings, with occasional poems and references in travel journals and later in emails to sons away in boarding schools.

This continued throughout my life, and has enriched the 50 or more years since those early encounters. I continue to discover pieces by Vaughan Williams that I had not heard. For example, I recently came across his “Dark Pastorale for Cello” and have added it to my ‘soul music’ playlist.  

His Tuba Concerto is a particular favourite, especially the slow movement, my private ‘swoon’. It is reminder of being in the Primary School Brass band at Brisbane’s Ascot State School in the early 1950s, playing that instrument. It turns out that the school band tuba experience may have been more significant than I ever imagined.

The band master, Mr Thompson, was my classroom teacher. I would have been 9 years old at the time. When he asked for volunteers for the band, I put up my hand, thinking of the cornet or trumpet (my elder brother already played the tenor horn in the band). However, much to my disappointment, I was assigned the tuba, and I was too shy to decline.

As I learned the tuba part to the then National Anthem, which on its own is very dull, I wished even more that I had had the courage to say “No thanks”. Practising alone was meaningless. The 3 or 4 notes I was to play were not melodies, not even tunes. However, I remember the absolute joy of discovering the contribution that my tuba part made to the big picture, when I played the national anthem for the first time with the rest of the band. My hitherto meaningless oompah – oompah-oompah became a sequence of moments of incredible beauty ,as they gave harmony and depth to others’ notes. I was overjoyed and transformed.  

It is interesting how this became a life-long theme for me, and I wonder was this the beginning of my interest in teamwork and collaboration and my quest for harmony, things I pursued in my career and family life.

Working with others, cooperation and achieving harmony amongst people characterised my working life and subsequently my so called ‘retirement’ years.

As I thought about these things, I became curious about where references to these memories might lie and so began a wonderful journey through computer files and journals. I was delighted to find many references to Vaughan Williams’ music and a number of poems, representing more than 60 years of “Vaughan Williams and me”. I imagine this will be a work in progress.

 Pieces of writing from my past that reflect on my love of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

 Vaughan Williams Tuba concerto: I am always moved by its mellowness. I love the way it represents an instrument normally used as one to back up others now having its own concerto. The sublime slow movement brings tears and seems to fill that space that must be my soul, which I presume, is deep, since it resonates so well with deep sounds. I have it on my ipod in a playlist I call my “soul music”.

 Vaughan Williams 5th Symphony: This was an early favourite and an early purchase as an LP recording. I had also heard it in performance. In 1968 I spent 5 months in Papua New Guinea on secondment as a young medico to a District Hospital in the Highlands, at the end of which I put together a film of the experience, using the VW 5th Symphony as part of the soundtrack.

Poem from 1970: I recall an early poem, lying on the floor listening to Vaughan Williams’ ‘Benedicite’, after a run with the dog.

References to Vaughan Williams Music in Journals and Jottings: I find references to Vaughan Williams’ music in journals kept during travels in 1971 and 1972, travels which had me trekking in Nepal, travelling overland in Europe and North America and later while working in Nepal.

  • From my Nepal Journal, December 1970, (from Pokhara to Annapurna Base Camp, Jomson and back)

Christmas eve 1970: 
A thoroughly delightful day… a day of old and new sounds;
the familiar whistle, song and laugh of the Sherpas;
the cough and chatter of the porters; bark of dogs; rush of water;
howl of the south wind up the Kali Gandaki river valley;

the gurgle of water in the races that supply villages with water,
or their mills with milling power;

the greetings of people; the tingle of bells on animal pack teams,
the calls whistles of their Tibetan attendants;
the sound of footsteps, one’s own and those of the party,
muffled by the dust, distorted by the loose stones, or clipped on the stone steps,

new sounds which include the rumble of the ice fall on Nilgiri –
followed by a slow prolonged cloud of snow and dust
moving as in slow motion down the mountain’s side —

the crows, chickens and other birds,
-and a new note of sadness, if this be a sound,
as we no longer go on, but begin our return
as Jomoson and the Nama Phu Yak pastures
were the farthest points of our itinerary.   
And add to these
the sounds of Vaughan William’s’ “Lark Ascending” from my cassette recorder.

  • In Europe, 1971
the music of Vaughan Williams
sunset the soft colours of Scottish twilight a cloudy day folk relaxing kindness the relaxation at the end of a long climb Heather grass fronds waving in the wind the wrinkled surface of a sheet of silver sea shining with the moon contraltos and baritones cellos and oboes bassoons softness, mellowness and depth... minor key....   

Discovering Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, Scotland, summer 1971:

Driving through Scotland with my sister Elizabeth in the summer of 1971, exploring family connections and family history, I heard on the radio that the BBC would be broadcasting Ralph Vaughan Williams “Sea Symphony” that evening. I had not heard this work, although Vaughan Williams was already a favourite of mine. I suggested to Elizabeth that we camp early so that we could have made our supper and cleaned up in time to listen to the concert. We were able to find a beautiful camping spot in a farmer’s field on the shore of Loch Linnhe. We cooked our supper, cleaned up and with the portable radio moved closer to the shore to listen to the Sea Symphony.

Journal entry June 16 1971, Onich, Scotland, on hearing Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony:

Kaleidoscope of clouds, piled high above the sea loch –  clouds that sail across the sky,  music and soft colours softening me, bringing the close mountains near and the far ones close;  clouds form and re-form, play the wind, as the sea gently laps the shore . as patches of sunlight slide up the hills – lighting the clouds from above and then below – the lap of the sea is gentle, mostly quiet;

a sheepdog, on his evening run, loping along the shore, crosses the field to greet us, to sit and seem to listen with us to the music.  He stays awhile, then bounds off to continue his run, bushy tail waving in the breeze like another wispy cloud, into the evening through the far corner of the yellow green field, watched lazily by the black faced shaggy Highland sheep.

all this to music, now our music, as it imitates the sea and transforms us who sit on its shore. and Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony is all around; each compass point is worthy of our full gaze within this dome of beauty, within this place of peace  – within the soft shadowless shades of the Scottish coastal twilight.

How hard it is to describe the setting, for what I see is now but a part of the whole, that sea surrounded by mountains, green and brown and shades of blue; that sky above, around, behind and in front, with clouds from right to left moving across and upwards, changing shapes changing types, all part of a greater connectedness

The music finishes. We linger, becoming part of the Highland twilight glow, evening’s gentle colour softening the blow of days departure. The horizon seems longer now. There is more to each part of my world now. The wind blows cold, the clouds change their character, as many times as the waves seemed to have lapped. It grows cold without, hands and nose, but warm, very warm within, in the knowledge of what it is to feel the folding of the day. and so to our tent, into our sleeping bags, withdrawing like the closing buttercups and daisies of the seaside field; withdrawing from the now purple sea where there is less light now, but where hills, shadowed before, are now a new glow in the evening sky.

As we get into our sleeping bags, we agree that it had been a beautiful evening, neither wishes to let words spoil the magic. What a multi-directional experience, as Elizabeth and I sat in a field last night with Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony bringing it all together, that sea of waves, of clouds and of hills, of buttercups, of joy, all seas on which to sail, seas joined across time and space, in harmony creating their symphonies of life, weaving us into each day as a wave upon the shore rising and falling back, to rise again amore

We awake on Thursday within a soft blue morning, – blue water, blue hills across the water. We breakfast, pack and are ready to move on when I say to Elizabeth, that I would like to do some writing before we do so. She says that suits her, as she wishes also to write.  I write in my journal and she writes a letter home. I write describing the evening before, the magic of the music, the transcendence and the connections that it made for me with people near and far, with places far and near. As I shared these thoughts with Elizabeth, we discovered we had expressed the same sentiments. And you can imagine how delighted I was when later, in London, I found a copy of the LP record of Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony which contained the texts of the poems by Walt Whitman which Vaughan Williams had set to his music, discovering they also expressed all the sentiments that we had felt, the feelings that the music had evoked within us, sister and brother, sitting on the shore of Loch Linnhe on that special evening in June 1971.

A couple of months later, on the Cunard ship Queen Elizabeth II from Southampton to New York:  3 August, 1971:

Early morning on the stern deck of the QE II, mid-Atlantic, listening to Vaughan Williams’ ” Sea Symphony ” 

a sea symphony…

to the early morning deck
to contemplate the sea
and its limitless heaving breast
on which our ship rides
churning away from its wake,
that ribbon of turmoiled water
all so close
water and sky, low cloud- fog
shrouding now, -then lifting
patchy enough to pattern the still sea
with sheets of silver,
silver in the gray

the wake turquoise now
but then deep blue gray,
sometimes stretching far out
and then, meeting the mist
to meld and almost surge back

silver ball,
weaving through the thin cloud
light on sea’s expanse- shine !
still softness of early morning
alone on the deck with music
watching the wake
letting the mind be tossed
as is the discarded carton
by that rush of foaming colour
ruffled as the still sea is
and settling as it does

warmth of the morning breeze
of its gentle stillness
which barely disturbs the surface
but gives a lilt to reflective calm ……
as the sun shines forth, the clouds round
and become themselves as ships on the sea
white sails reflecting on the deep blue mirror
its still surface making
for deeper depth
deeper into the day

we churn on into the warming day
a brightness that lights the emerging people
as they come to join its symphony

Kathmandu, July 1997: on reading ‘Anatomy of the Spirit’  by Caroline Myss:   

At this moment, as I read on in the book, I listen to Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, which is his setting to music of poems of the spirit by Walt Whitman. I pause to listen to the words. I look for them in a volume of his poems. To my surprise, they are from his 1865 poem “Passage to India”. What connections with where I am at the moment, physically just to the north of that country.  What a whole new dimension this gives to the words I am reading. I am immediately taken back to the occasion on which I first heard this music. I am right there on the edge of Loch Linnie in Scotland in the summer of 1971. My sister Elizabeth is with me, and without speaking to each other, we both experience the spiritual dimension of both words and music. My eyes fill with tears. I know these are special tears. They are not of sadness, such is the first label so many give. No, they are the tears  of fullness and joy. They are indeed a physiological response to my thoughts, but such are the tears, they are not just a response to the thoughts, they are a response to my atoms and molecules vibrating with energy from elsewhere, from across time and space, from the music that surrounds me. It surely is my soul’s resonance with the resonance of others’ souls. It is the infinite dimension of my own being, tapping the wider and higher energy of all.  ..and perhaps this is what, for generations, those who would do so, have tried to describe as “God”. 

Words from Music: in an email to three sons from Nepal in the 1990s:
Two pieces that move me muchly as music, but also as words, are the Gerald Finzi ‘’Dies Natalis” and one of Vaughan Williams ”Five Mystical Songs” which sets to music poems of George Hebert. The Vaughan Williams setting of the poem of George Hebert has been a treasure, carried deeply within, since my mid-twenties. I used to sing it out loud during my 4-week 1970-71 trek in Nepal, to the Annapurna Sanctuary and Jomosom, on those occasions when I found myself walking alone or when had stopped to let a mountain vista overwhelm me and take me away! To me the song represents the essence of the immediacy of the present moment, the allness of today, of each day.

I got me flowers to strew thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee
The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light and the East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.
Can there be any day but this
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.

June 1996: Kathmandu, Nepal: 

today I found a music which I could feel represents me. First the young idealist, weaving a theme of purity, which becomes enriched with time and experience, striving on to crescendo and that deep double harp as depth of soul is realised. Then the soaring, that new theme the winds weave, and together they move to crescendo; And then there is a shift to a different key and a second theme of richness and fullness, reflecting what I feel at this time and in this place; a processional if not regal, music for a country representative…. “

Job a Masque for Dancing” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, tracks 8 and 9.

In November 1997, while working in Nepal:  

We spent just over two weeks in India. As the WHO  Representative in Nepal, I was to attend the annual meeting of the WHO Country Representatives of the South East Asian Region in the WHO Regional Office in New Delhi, India.  Leslie and I decided to drive ourselves there from Kathmandu in our own Landrover Discovery. We took three days for the trip there and an extra three days for the return, so that we could have a day or two in Jaipur and Deeg on the return trip. What a wonderful trip we had. I would never have believed that driving through the North of India could have been such a colourful and enjoyable adventure.  It proved to be a veritable feast for the eyes and all the other senses. (which we unashamedly enriched with our own music tapes on the car stereo, Mozart and Vaughan Williams in the morning and Loreena McKennit or Dave Matthews later in the day). We had wonderful contact with our fellow travellers and those through whose towns and villages we passed. People were so helpful and always willing to give us direction when the signposts we needed were not there.  So many images remain vivid in my mind, none the least of which was Leslie’s comment on our return that it had been a highlight of her life. Wow.  Now that is a privilege, to have been part of that. 

December 2011, from my 70th birthday:

My little sister (13 years younger than me) had been asked to make some comment on her memories of my adolescent years at my 70th birthday celebration. She did so, and followed up a day or so later with this message:

“I heard Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ today in the car and thought of an addendum to the adolescence stories. Perhaps that piece would be the soundtrack, as it was to the flickering super 8 movies you would bring back from your adventures far and near, the Warrumbungle mountains, Goroka tribal gatherings. And I was lucky enough to be taken to some of the places you loved and have the music you loved played to me and to this day I know that it helped me develop a deep sense of knowing who I was in the very deep still pool of my inner self that sustained me silently and steadfastly through troubled young adult years. So, if you had been a piece of music in your ‘adolescence’, it would have been the big vista and soaring heights and sublime beauty of “The Lark Ascending”.

And some final words:

I am deeply moved by the resonance Vaughan Williams music has with that deep space that must be my soul, and by the way it appears at auspicious times, especially on journeys.

  • Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams to be remembered by:

The Lark Ascending
Five Mystical songs: No 2 I got me flowers
Dona Nobis Pacem IV: The dirge for two veterans
From Job; Scene VII; Elihu’s Dance of youth and beauty.
Pavane of the Sons of morning
from Hodie XI Lullaby; Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sang
Sea Symphony ii Largo; On the Beach at night alone
Piano Concerto: 2nd movt Romanza
Tuba Concerto: 2nd movt Romanza
5th Symphony in its entirety

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