This essay was originally published in the Journal of the RVW Society, No. 42, July 2008.
The deeper one peers into the life and works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the more enigmatic they both become. Rarely in the post-romantic world has there been a major composer so reticent about sharing his inspirations, his beliefs, or even his inner life. Before his day it had already become common practice for major composers to be, in a sense, literary men as well. Perhaps the most exaggerated example of this can be found in Richard Wagner, whose writings seem an apotheosis for the 19th century German Romantic movement. In his typically paradigm-defining manner, Wagner wrote volume after volume detailing his artistic ideology, that his works might be framed within a specific context. This in turn set an example for many of the composers who followed. Tracing the history of European art music since the Romantic period, we find the necessity of a dual discipline emerging—what can be called the composer as critic, or even the composer as the primitive musicologist of his own work. By the mid-twentieth century it had become both commonplace and expected that a prominent composer should publish manifestoes on art in the form of concert notes, articles, or even books. Some used their literary gift as a means of promoting the musical theories behind their works, others as a means of defending themselves against newspaper critics, others still as an almost parallel art form. A fascinating library of works was thus developed over the decades, including books that are interesting almost entirely in their own right, only tangentially related to the music they took as their original raison d’etre. The writings of Erik Satie, Charles Ives’s Essays before a Sonata, Constant Lambert’s Music Ho!, and John Cage’s Silence are but a few examples of the many books that fascinate even on non-musical levels. Gone were the days when major composers were considered mere servants to aristocratic culture. Indeed, the modern world somewhat surprisingly expected composers to be more than mere musicians: it demanded political theorists, sociologists, even seers—very clearly men of the written word as well as the musical score.
It should be noted that this was a relatively recent development before the day of Vaughan Williams. In the century before his birth we cannot even imagine the notion of Mozart writing an extended philosophical text detailing with the implications of The Magic Flute, or propagating a treatise on The Marriage of Figaro which subsequently might have driven him into political exile. Before this, the idea of Bach writing a multiple volume summa on the spiritual and political importance of cantatas and passion settings is unthinkable. Still farther back, the notion that anyone in Tudor England would have considered the theological opinions of William Byrd, in any substantial and serious way, is at least mildly ridiculous.