Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Royston connection

RCS bass Anthony Pigg shares his personal view of one of England’s greatest composers, his contribution to sacred music, and a connection with Royston.

I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when, as a keen music student, I attended the Stowe summer school of music, I have been interested and enjoyed listening to it ever since.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 and died in 1958. His music was influenced by English folk songs and Tudor music, it has an individual style quite unlike the Germanic style which generally dominated that period of music. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London, Trinity College Cambridge, and with the great French Composer Maurice Ravel (composer of the famous ‘Bolero’).

He was born in Gloucestershire, a vicar’s son, his mother was the great granddaughter of Josia Wedgwood and the niece of Charles Darwin. She inherited the open-minded and progressive views of her family and no doubt passed them on to young Ralph. When he was two or three years old his father died and the family moved to Wotton in Surrey where he was in the care of a nurse Sara Wager. It is said that she instilled in him certain liberal, social and philosophic opinions.

It is recorded that when the young Vaughan Williams asked his mother about Darwin’s book on evolution. ‘The Origin of Species’, she simply replied "The Bible says that God made the world in six days. Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer, but we needn’t worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.”

Regarding his sacred works, although Vaughan Williams described himself as both an atheist and, in later life, an agnostic he had a great love of the authorised version of the Bible and wrote some beautiful church music. He is a complex character and I think it best not to try to work out his beliefs or form a judgement as everybody’s faith is different. Among his sacred works are the hymn tunes ‘Down Ampney’ (“Come Down, O Love Divine”), ‘Sine nomine’ (“For All the Saints”) along with great works such as the ‘Fantasia on Christmas Carols’ and the ‘G minor Mass’.

Finally, a local link. I said that Vaughan Williams’s music was influenced by British folk music, in fact he spent much of his time collecting folk tunes. Following his time at Cambridge in 1906 – 1908, he rented a house in Meldreth, near Royston for his summer holidays. He spent much time cycling around the area listening out for folk songs; there are records of such tunes being collected from the villages of Meldreth, Bassingbourn, Orwell and Fowlmere and I dare say many others too.

We know that in 1907 he heard ‘The Green Bushes’ sung by a Mr. Wiltshire who was an inmate of Royston Union, a large building which used to be a workhouse on the Baldock Road. It was located opposite the golf club, where Copperfields and Downlands now stand, and in my lifetime was known as Heath Lodge, being subsequently demolished in the 1970s. The Green Bushes theme was used by Vaughan Williams in the 2nd movement (intermezzo) of his English Folk Song suite. For the musicians it is at the poco allegro first played by the piccolo. Although Vaughan Williams probably heard this tune many times all over England, I like to think that it was our Mr. Wiltshire who first inspired this great English composer.”