Wednesday, August 26, 2015


This essay was originally published in The Journal of The RVW Society, No 36, June 2006. 

We had the experience but missed the meaning.
                                                                —T.S. Eliot

I remember once sitting in a graduate seminar, listening to presentations on 20th century composers, when a very bright student delivered a thirty-minute talk on the Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives. He went into great detail, but the detail was not exclusively about Ives, nor was it primarily about the piece in question. It was primarily about himself: his experience of the piece, his path toward understanding the complex musical material in front of him and, ultimately, his own philosophical and spiritual understanding of life, of which he more or less used the piece as a proof. By the end of the presentation, the other students had certainly learned about Charles Ives and his music, but if they were listening carefully, they learned even more about their classmate.

Regardless of whether or not such a presentation is of value in a purely musicological sense, it is important to note that this method of analysis is no mere student phenomenon. It is in fact a practical rule, albeit tacit, of musicology itself. Most scholars tend to make a strong pretense to objectivity, but a careful reading of standard musical biographies, general histories of music, and articles will demonstrate that the history of music is often used as an ideological battleground, fraught with the agenda of whatever scholar is at hand, rather than as a true discovery of the musician in question, thoughtfully and carefully placed in his or her own day and age. Thus we have a conflicting and even contradictory history of scholarship on any given composer or subject. For example, if we read enough we can learn of the Marxist Beethoven, the Fascist Beethoven, the Freudian Beethoven, or the Feminist deconstruction of Beethoven. Each of them will claim to give us the “true” Beethoven, or at least purport to have placed him properly for the first time. But in each we will also note that some quotations of the composer will have been exaggerated, others will have been suppressed; some important pieces will have been ignored; other, less significant pieces will have been suddenly discovered for the unheralded masterpieces they truly are. To anyone critically following the bias of the scholar, it will become obvious that in many such cases Beethoven is used less as a subject for study than as an object—even to the point of becoming a pawn in what is often a distinctly non-musical game.

All of the great composers have been subjected, over and again, to this sort of analysis. These days, it can sometimes seem as though it is the only analysis that is ever done. But despite all of this, the majority opinion of scholars comes to something like a general agreement on a reasonable position: Bach isn’t regarded as a covert atheist, nor is Beethoven regarded as a proto-Marxist by reasonable scholars, though both claims have been made. Likewise a reasonable consensus exists for most of the major composers in the Classical Canon.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, however, is an exception. He is not considered by the majority of scholars to have been one of the most important composers of his era. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, even Shostakovich and Prokofiev tend to overshadow him in general survey texts. Remembered as a primary factor in the English Musical Renaissance of the early 20th century, he is studied closely only by a handful of scholars, and all too often relegated to a “second tier” of “nationalist” composers (most of whom are considered, rightly or wrongly, to be derivatives of the “greater” composers). Thus Vaughan Williams hasn’t been as hotly debated; fewer ideologues have tried to claim him as their own; fewer hostile scholars have tried to deconstruct him and his work. In one sense this can be good: in so being considered, his life and music have avoided a variety of misreadings. But in another way, this can be very bad, and stunt our understanding of his artistic achievement, particularly if all of the small circle of Vaughan Williams scholars hold one narrow ideology, or reductive outlook, unanimously. Imagining this happening to Beethoven demonstrates how detrimental it might be: if all of the major scholars agreed that he was a proto-Marxist, and every quotation of the great composer running counter to this hypothesis was overlooked, others exaggerated, our deeper understanding of his music would suffer. What would happen to interpretation of the Missa Solemnis? Likewise if Bach criticism was to be dominated by scholars without sufficient background in Christian thought, our understanding of his artistic achievement would be hindered, if not maimed irreparably. And yet this, without exaggerating matters, is analogous to the situation confronting the person who would seek to understand and appreciate the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Since the time of his death, there has been one scholarly opinion regarding the religious beliefs of Ralph Vaughan Williams: it is taken for granted that he was an atheist as a young man, and that he later drifted into agnosticism defined in a narrow and reductive sense, which he held for the rest of his life. Every other opinion, be it Hubert Foss’s flirtation with the word “pantheism” or Byron Adams’s suggestion that RVW used scripture in non-Christian ways, is merely a variation or development on this unanimously assumed theme. Over the last half century, the most frequently cited quotations on the subject have become so officially canonized and engrained that no one, to date, has gone back to look at the strength of the quotes themselves. What was their actual context? Who was the source? Are they being presented in a biased manner, or do they come from a biased source? What was Vaughan Williams actually referring to when he made them? None of these questions have been asked, nor has it been pointed out that the reductive view of Vaughan Williams’s supposed atheism and agnosticism has been hung, for over four decades, on the strength (or weakness) of only a handful of these quotes.

More interesting then this, however, are the quotations ignored, which seem to weaken (or in some cases contradict) the prevalent theory of VW’s beliefs. Finally, the pieces themselves speak very strongly, and only when we are willing to question the assumptions of the major scholars are we able to uncover the true depths of pieces such as the Five Mystical Songs, Sancta Civitas, the Dona Nobis Pacem, and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The remedy is not so simple as illuminating the depths of pieces, however, as a great deal of dogma has been written about the religious beliefs of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Scholars seemingly without enough knowledge of Christianity, Church history, theology and mysticism have made pronouncements on the subject, buttressing a narrow understanding of VW’s beliefs with a great deal of misinformation, false assumption, and in some cases, misreadings of even the quotes they have thought supported their conclusions. It will therefore take a great deal of unraveling before the situation can be remedied.

Vaughan Williams the atheist?

In his brief overview of the generally prevalent attitudes towards Vaughan Williams’s beliefs, John Barr sensibly opts for a chronological exposition, documenting the major opinions held by scholars at each stage of the composer’s life.1 Beginning, then, with VW’s childhood, Barr points out that the composer was the son of an Anglican clergyman, who died while Ralph was little more than an infant. Significantly, he also mentions that his mother, Margaret Vaughan Williams, was a Christian with “strict evangelical leanings,” though he couldn’t remember exactly where he had read this. It is no surprise that it was difficult to locate the exact source for the quote, as it is not to be found in any of the primary materials a Vaughan Williams scholar might immediately reference for childhood material. Rather, the description of Vaughan Williams's mother as a “strict Christian” comes from Byron Adams’s article, “Scripture, Church and culture: biblical texts in the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams” published in 1996.2

In our current cultural climate, particularly if one is an American, to call someone a strict Christian with evangelical leanings is hardly neutral. It implies many things, not the least of which is the term “fundamentalist,” with all of its historical and cultural baggage. Adams could have chosen the word “devout,” of course, but he didn’t. As it is, Margaret Vaughan Williams’s religious beliefs are shown in what certainly appears to be a negative light. Moreover, the implication that Vaughan Williams’s mother was “strict” at all in matters of religion (that she was a rigid enforcer of doctrine or ideas, or a literal interpreter of scripture) seems unfounded. This can be demonstrated by the reply Mrs. Vaughan Williams made to her son when he asked her opinion on the controversy surrounding The Origin of Species, his great uncle’s celebrated book:

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.3

This is not the opinion of a woman who was “strict” about her beliefs, intellectually, in any pejorative sense. In fact, it seems to have been drawn from The Origin of Species itself, where we read:

I see no good reason why the views expressed in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any…A celebrated author and divine has written to me that “he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe he required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.” 4

The evidence would therefore suggest that Margaret Vaughan Williams was open-minded on such issues (as are many Christians); one who left room in her faith for intellectual inquiry and debate. Likewise, it seems bizarre that a “strict Christian” would have exposed her son to the radical opinions of his childhood nurse, Sarah Wager, which Ursula Vaughan Williams said were, anyhow, also the opinion of the family.5 We are left, then, with a different portrait of Vaughan Williams’s family life. What emerges are liberal Anglicans, politically and doctrinally, including the person of his mother. It was probably within this family structure that his allegorical understanding of scripture (discussed later) was first nurtured.    

This brief clarification concerning Margaret Vaughan Williams aside, the first mention of an atheistic phase in Vaughan Williams’s life usually begins with a discussion of his time at Rottingdean, where he encountered a boy whose atheistic opinions had impressed him. Yet also at Rottingdean, Vaughan Williams had, in his words, a “remarkable undermaster.” His memories of this undermaster are of interest to the present discussion, for the composer later said, “I remember once his explaining the philosophy of the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. I wish we had had more of him, for this was, of course, all off the record.” 6

These two anecdotes provide a good example of how scholars over the last four decades have presented the development of Vaughan Williams’s religious beliefs. The former example (of the atheist boy) is the one frequently cited, while the latter (which actually appears first in Ursula Vaughan Williams’s book) is never referenced. Yet the incident is important, as the text which the undermaster elucidated to Vaughan Williams, leaving him wanting more, was a chapter from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians—a fact which would be directly pertinent to any discussion of Vaughan Williams and religion.

There are many other reasons why this is important. First, it belies the common assertion that Vaughan Williams’s only attraction to the Bible was literary: that somehow, he was enraptured by the prose of the Authorized Version, while remaining disinterested or unaffected by the underlying meaning of the text. On the contrary, by this quote we know that Vaughan Williams from a young age was interested in the meaning of scripture. This will become more and more apparent when we consider his mature musical works, such as the Dona Nobis Pacem, but it also has implications for his translations of the Bach Passions.

Second, the text itself is important. Vaughan Williams remembered the very book and chapter. Frequently read at weddings, the text is as follows:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

I have quoted here from the Authorized Version that Vaughan Williams is known to have loved. It is tempting to speculate as to what the undermaster said concerning the passage. Was he also using the Authorized Version? And if so, was he elucidating the term “charity”, now usually translated as “love”? What was it that so impressed Vaughan Williams that he remembered the experience half a century later? Was it here that he first came into intellectual (rather than merely cultural) contact with the writings of St Paul (one who he was to quote and paraphrase many times throughout his life)? Was it here, in fact, that he fell in love with scripture? Perhaps more importantly than these questions, however, is that here Vaughan Williams might have been exposed to the philosophy he was to hold for course of his career: namely that music is not an end in and of itself. Instead of the 19th century concept of “art for art’s sake”, Vaughan Williams was repeatedly explicit that music was a way of spiritually reaching out to “ultimate reality” beyond music itself. 

Yet it remains that scholars have preferred the story of the atheist boy, whose opinions struck him as “impressive and reasonable.” It ought to be pointed out, however, that nowhere in Ursula Vaughan Williams’s account does it say, directly, that RVW came to share them absolutely. Striking to me is that in Mrs. Vaughan Williams’s meticulous biography of her husband, she gives no actual quotations from her husband, directly pertaining to personal atheism. This is significant in that the scholars since Mrs. Vaughan Williams have tended to exaggerate even further the idea and strength of an atheistic phase.

In terms of verbal proof of such a phase, the most heavily relied upon quote comes from Bertrand Russell, who related a story and quote to Michael Kennedy after the composer’s death, dating from VW’s time at Cambridge in the 1890s.  
Kennedy writes:

At Cambridge he had had a reputation as ‘a most determined atheist’, according to Bertrand Russell, who was at Trinity at the same time, and he was noted for having walked into Hall one evening saying in a loud voice, ‘Who believes in God nowadays, I should like to know?’7

The anecdote is of interest not simply for its content, but for the person who related it. The storyteller was not neutral to the topic of religious beliefs, though neither Kennedy nor subsequent scholars have mentioned it. In fact, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was distinctly and openly anti-Christian (anti-religious in every sense of the word, actually). A noted philosopher and mathematician, he was also one of the most influential atheists of his day.  He campaigned actively, through his writings and lectures, to convert people to non-belief, though he was careful to qualify the statement, admitting that pure atheism was a logically untenable position—his position would be perhaps best described as agnosticism with no real possibility of God’s existence. This is an important thing to consider, as “agnosticism” may mean any range of positions. Vaughan Williams’s agnosticism, it will be shown, did not resemble Russell’s, whose opinions on religion are quoted below:

“I regard [religion] as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.”8

“Fear is the basis of [religion]—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder that cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.”9

“I think all the great religions of the world—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism—both untrue and harmful.”10

“The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured; the chief obstacle to its utilization for that purpose is the teaching of religion. … It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary to first slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.”11

Setting aside the hyperbole which runs throughout his essays (essays which lampoon a caricature of Christianity rather than engaging actual theology with reasoned argument), what can be seen clearly is a distinct bias against religion on the part of Bertrand Russell. And yet it is this single quote, written to Michael Kennedy approximately seventy years after the supposed incident, which remains our only verbal proof for a strong atheistic phase in Vaughan Williams’s development. Perhaps the entire correspondence between Kennedy and Russell regarding this issue would shed more light on the quote. Context, which we sorely lack in this instance, would help us determine its value.

Also interesting is the willingness with which some scholars have accepted this story, interpretation and all, without reservations. Of RVW’s many biographers and critics, including James Day, Simon Heffer, Byron Adams and others, none has brought up the fact that Russell was a celebrated atheist. On the contrary, some have appeared all too eager to develop the story further. Ultimately, though, the quote is of very little weight, despite the commanding and definitive position it has been awarded for the past forty years. The source was so partisan as to render it suspect, the story was related after the composer’s death, some seven decades after the supposed fact, and without context for the comment. And whatever else this quote might be, it is emphatically not a public proclamation of anything so specific as atheism. A devout Christian might have related the same quotation, with a differently implied context, changing the meaning entirely. To this point, the evidence for a youthful atheistic phase of any real determination for Ralph Vaughan Williams has been based on very scant evidence coupled with dogmatic assertions, usually to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary. This is not to rule out the possibility of some legitimacy, but we should be honest and clear about this: nowhere have we been given actual statements, written or spoken by Vaughan Williams, to corroborate blind belief in such a dedicated, atheistic phase of his spiritual development. And as we shall see, even if Vaughan Williams had an atheistic phase, it would have been over by about 1898, once we begin analyzing some of the poetic texts he chose for songs.

In 1898, as part of a set entitled (somewhat misleadingly) “Three Elizabethan Songs”, Vaughan Williams set a lyric by George Herbert (whose poems he would return to for the rest of his long career), entitled “Virtue.” The poem deals with the transitory nature of temporal existence, while ending with a contrasting meditation on the immortality of the soul in the final stanza:

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
            Then chiefly lives.

The imagery, though gentle, is explicitly apocalyptic—the whole world turning to coal is an allusion to the end of time in the Book of Revelation (which was the basis of Vaughan Williams’s Oratorio, Sancta Civitas). Even if we suggest that Vaughan Williams in 1898 held no literal belief in a future apocalypse, as the 17th century cleric who wrote the lyric surely must have, the poem at the very least speaks to the immortality of the soul, which topic Vaughan Williams was drawn to, relentlessly, for the rest of his career. This in and of itself would be a bizarre, inconsistent, and a self-contradictory subject for an atheist of Vaughan Williams’s day. It would be contradictory even to the formulation of hardened agnosticism later propagated by Bertrand Russell. 

In that same year, Vaughan Williams also set a text by Christina Rossetti entitled “Dream Land.” Rossetti, a devout High Anglican, was often explicit in her Christian imagery, and this lyric is no exception. In the first stanza we encounter a reference to the star over Bethlehem at the nativity, while in the fourth and final stanza, we read:

Rest, rest for evermore
Upon a mossy shore;
Rest, rest at the heart’s core
                  Till time shall cease:
Sleep that no pain shall wake;
Night that no morn shall break
Till joy shall overtake
                  Her perfect peace.

Once again we are given a meditation on the immortality of the soul in the poem, this time in even more explicitly Christian imagery. Vaughan Williams would not have failed to notice the reference to Milton in this final stanza. “Till joy shall overtake” is a quote of Milton’s ode “On Time” (“then joy shall overtake us as a flood”), another poem dealing with the loss of the temporal and the gaining of the eternal.

Despite even the most sophisticated arguments of 21st century secularists, it is hard to imagine an atheist having any attraction to poetry such as this, let alone to go on setting exactly this sort of verse for another six decades. The obvious, simplest, and most reasonable conclusion is that if Vaughan Williams ever had an atheistic phase, it was most certainly over by the year 1898. I qualify this only by saying that it is by no means proven that he ever had a true atheistic phase (one which he had thought through, debating the actual claims of Christianity, and rejecting each one in turn). This quick demonstration reveals two things: First, that the works of Vaughan Williams pertain directly to the discussion of his religious beliefs, and second, it highlights the lack of interest scholars have shown regarding the texts themselves. This will become even more obvious as we continue to Vaughan Williams’s later masterpieces.

Before leaving the discussion surrounding atheism, however, there are other issues to be mentioned. One is of another quote favored and relied upon heavily by scholars: the oft repeated “There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass.”12 Once again, we have the difficulty of context for the quote. No direct context is offered by Mrs. Vaughan Williams as to when RVW said this, where, to whom, or what the tenor of the surrounding conversation might have been at the time. Did he say this often or only once? Was he provoked into saying it or did it arise spontaneously? We are not given this information. Aside from these important concerns, what does the quote mean? It doesn’t mean that the composer was himself an atheist. And perhaps even more importantly, it doesn’t even mean that VW felt an atheist had ever actually written a good Mass: only that there was no reason why one shouldn’t. Any number of situations might have prompted the comment, from any number of different points of view. Yet too often scholars have immediately jumped to the conclusion that this quote says something about Vaughan Williams’s own faith or lack of faith. Given a lack of context for the quote, and given what the statement actually means, on its own merits, this is an altogether unreasonable assumption. We must take it to mean only what it says, and, as such, not much can realistically be gleaned from it. 

Quotations with Context

Moving on to some quotations with actual context, we turn to the much oversimplified and misunderstood quote standing at the beginning of Vaughan Williams’s Oratorio Sancta Civitas. The quote in question is from Plato’s Phaedo.  Frank Howes, Michael Kennedy and James Day, have offered different translations.13 They are as follows:

No reasonable man ought to be dogmatic about the details of what I have just been through, yet something of the sort is the truth about our souls and their habitation after death, since in any event the soul appears to be immortal. So it seems to me that it is right and proper to take the risk of holding this opinion—for risk is a fine thing—and a man should, as it were, have it as a song in his heart and sing about it. 14

Now to assert that these things are exactly as I have described them would not be reasonable. But that these things, or something like them, are true concerning the souls of men and their habitations after death, especially since the soul is shown to be immortal, this seems to me fitting and worth risking to believe. For the risk is honorable, and a man should sing such things in the manner of an incantation to himself. 15

A man of sense will not insist that things are exactly as I have described them. But I think he will believe that something of the kind is true of the soul and her habitations, seeing that she is shown to be immortal, and that it is worth while to stake everything on this belief. The venture is a fair one and he must charm his doubts with spells like these. 16

Vaughan Williams didn’t offer us an English translation of the text—the score I have seen bears only the original Greek. Therefore it is unlikely we shall ever know whose translation he would have preferred; Kennedy’s, Day’s, Howes’s, or someone else’s. It is dangerous, therefore, to draw exact conclusions from this excerpt. Did Vaughan Williams understand the Plato to read “the soul is shown to be immortal” (as in Kennedy and Day) or “the soul appears to be immortal” (as in Howes)? The former would suggest a statement of conviction on VW’s part; the latter implies a leaning. Is risk a “fine thing”, or merely “honorable”? Or is it “worthwhile to stake everything on this belief”? To discover RVW’s exact belief on this matter, at the time he quoted it, would likely require a Socratic dialogue with him, which we don’t possess.    

This quotation has been interpreted by all scholars, with seemingly unanimous voice, as Vaughan Williams’s deliberate distancing of himself from the text which follows, drawn from the Book of Revelation. But this interpretation raises immediate questions. First, if Vaughan Williams was an atheist at some point prior to composing Sancta Civitas (which they likewise insist), wouldn’t the quote rather demonstrate Vaughan Williams moving closer towards belief? The text itself suggests that “this or something like this” is “true”—not aesthetically pleasing or useful as a symbol of the human spirit. Second, the only way in which this quotation would serve to distance Vaughan Williams from the text would be if he had, prior to the composition of Sancta Civitas, been convinced of a literal reading of the Book of Revelation. The quote would then serve to demonstrate a movement on his part towards a more allegorical reading of the text, a method of scriptural interpretation we know he understood, by virtue of a letter to Mrs. Joyce Hooper from 31 October 1951, wherein he wrote:

As regards my other point, human love has always been taken as a symbol
of man’s relation to divine things. The Song of Solomon has been treated
in all of the Churches as a symbol of the relationship of God to man. And
what about Isaiah and his “beloved’s Vineyard”? And is not the Church
in the Book of Revelations always symbolized as the bride?

Such allegorical reading of scripture is completely orthodox: it is as old as Christianity itself. Therefore, a traditional, orthodox Catholic or Anglican could easily have quoted the same passage from Phaedo without implying even the slightest bit of agnosticism. Vaughan Williams’s critics seem to have either overlooked this, or to have been ignorant that within Christian theology there are a variety of approaches to scriptural exegesis; that fundamentalist theology is not a majority opinion, but a minority and distinctly non-traditional method. It appears they have been applying a false norm to Christian thought.

Unrelated to the Greek quotation preceding the piece, Sancta Civitas exposes another assumption of the majority of scholars, regarding scripture. The standard argument has been that Vaughan Williams was primarily dedicated to the soaring prose of the Authorized Version—that he admired it as literature, but had no use for its theological and mystical substance (insofar as we are discussing specifically Christian mysticism). We have already seen, in a generally overlooked quotation of the composer, that this was hardly the case, as Vaughan Williams had been interested with the philosophy behind scripture from the time he was at Rottingdean. But the text of Sancta Civitas also contradicts this assumption, as it was not chosen solely from the King James Bible, but Taverner’s Bible as well. It seems, therefore, that Vaughan Williams was looking to accomplish something other than an immortalizing of the Authorized Version in song. He must have had deeper reasons, ones which he had thought through on a level beyond the literary or aesthetic.    

Even on a merely literary level, though, Vaughan Williams’s writings have been misunderstood. Harold Bloom has complained that the worst offense, and result, of contemporary literary criticism has been an incapacity to comprehend irony. Lamenting this most profoundly when discussing a play such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he implies that a literal interpretation of Hamlet’s words results in a chaotic reading of the text, so much of which is dependant upon the irony of the main character.17 Vaughan Williams’s words have been a victim of something like this as well, although perhaps the device missed by scholars has been that of frustrated sarcasm. One quote in particular has been habitually taken out of context by scholars. It comes from a letter to Rutland Boughton, concerning the changing of the name “Christian” to “Pilgrim” in his opera based on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The most frequently excerpted line is as follows:

I on purpose did not call the Pilgrim “Christian” because I want the idea to be universal and apply to anybody who aims at the spiritual life whether he is Xtian, Jew, Buddhist, Shintoist, or 5th Day Adventist. 18

As with the previously favored quotations, this has been frequently cited by scholars without reference to its full context, and the sarcasm contained within it seems to have been missed altogether. Boughton’s letter (dated 12 May 1951), to which Vaughan Williams was responding, was later well described by Michael Kennedy as being “a mixture of good sense, musicianship, prejudice, muddle-headed political dogma, and sheer wrong-headedness.”19 Vaughan Williams’s response was short, terse, and in some places sarcastic—most pronouncedly so in the quote above, where he mentions a fanciful sect called the “5th Day Adventists.” This, to anyone who knows what Vaughan Williams was talking about, is obvious sarcasm. But certain scholars, among them Byron Adams, seem to have taken this to mean something very serious. Adams goes so far as to interpret the quote as a proof of Vaughan Williams’s “democratic belief in the validity of all religious traditions [etc].”20

This is a serious misreading of the text at hand, as Adams has missed all of the satire of Vaughan Williams’s invented denomination—the “5th Day Adventists” (emphasis mine). The denomination he was sarcastically alluding to actually call themselves the 7th Day Adventists. That Vaughan Williams had already included “Xtian” was an added jab, inferring that 7th Day Adventism wasn’t Christian, and that one of the denomination’s doctrines (that services should be held, and the Sabbath faithfully observed, on Saturday) was arbitrary. Thus, in the very passage Adams believes he has found a “democratic belief in the validity of all religious traditions,” RVW actually lampoons a religious tradition. In other words, to look for a 21st century notion of religious relativism in this passage is futile. 21

Beyond the sarcasm of the letter, there is the question of Vaughan Williams’s intent. Some scholars would have us believe that it contains a statement of his deepest religious opinions. But it is no such thing: instead, it must be understood as a quick response to an annoying letter. This isn’t to say it is without value altogether: it implies at least an ecumenical side of RVW’s thought. But it must be stressed that this is only implied, and that the line in which it is implied is riddled with sarcasm. It is highly improbable that the composer ever expected it to be kept by the recipient, let alone published and used as a definitive statement of his beliefs concerning the complexities of ecumenism and inter-religious relationships. Certainly he would have written something less sarcastic and flippant if that were the case.

Most problematic, however, is that this quote has been used as a context for The Pilgrim’s Progress. The end result of this approach has been to present the opera as a mere statement of English nationalism; a vaguely spiritual allegory which is really, in some muddled sense, “beyond” religion, and only by accident of birth associated with Christianity rather than with Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism (among many other options). This, more than anything, has contributed to the misunderstanding of the opera, and is probably the single biggest way in which Vaughan Williams scholars have inadvertently discouraged the work from production. A few years ago, I published an article entitled “The Pilgrim’s Progress in Context: a preliminary study” wherein I discussed the dramatic substance of the piece. Central to my argument was that, for the Pilgrim to be understood as a dramatic work, worthy of stage production, the opening of Act I Scene 2, where the Pilgrim comes to the cross, must be understood and accepted in all of its Christian theological symbolism. Without this explicitly and uniquely Christian context, the piece absolutely fails as a music drama—in fact, the plot makes very little sense at all. To interpret The Pilgrim’s Progress in a vague, non-religious manner is therefore to interpret it into failure, leaving it nothing but an unsatisfying exercise in cultural anthropology.22 By contrast, if we are open enough to see the quote in the context of the opera, rather than vice versa, we gain a better understanding of both. In all likelihood, the quote taken in context means that Vaughan Williams believed the Christian message to be applicable to people of all faiths: that the Christian message was universal.

All of this brings us, at last, to some relatively ignored quotations with actual context, found in texts written by Vaughan Williams himself, without sarcasm. The first of great interest is to be found in program notes written by the composer for a performance of the Bach Choir in 1923:

The essence of the ‘Passion’ form is the recital of the Gospel story as a Church service, interspersed with reflective solos and choruses and the well-known choral melodies of the Lutheran Church (many of which happily belong to the English Church as well, so that here we are on familiar ground), and it is in this spirit that it must be performed and listened to.

However in transferring a work from the Thomaskirche in 1729 to a London concert room in 1923, certain adaptations and compromises are inevitable. To start with, the only possible language in which the gospel history can be recited to an English audience is that of the Authorized Version of 1611: anything else would be an insult to Bach and the Bible. To do this it is necessary to alter a few notes of Bach’s recitative, and in a few cases to sacrifice some of Bach’s subtlety of phrasing but the compromise cannot be avoided.

Bach’s original chorus for his cantata and Passions consisted of not more than 40 voices. What then are we to do when we have a chorus of 300? It seems ridiculous and outside the bounds of dramatic propriety to give the words of the Apostles or the questions of Peter to more than a few voices; these numbers have then been assigned to the semi-chorus. One exception, however, has been made: the words ‘truly, this was the Son of God’ belong not to the ‘Centurion and they that were with him’, but are the triumphant outcry of the whole world. 23

These reflections on Bach’s Passion settings are extremely important. Unlike all of the previously favored quotations used to portray a Vaughan Williams as distant from Christianity as possible, they were actually prepared by the composer for publication, in the form of program notes. They have context, they are serious, and they were premeditated. None of the more favored quotations can claim anything like this.

An atheist or agnostic of the Bertrand Russell variety (hostile to and distant from Christianity) would never have written anything of the kind. And here it is useful to dispel one of the most frequent false-parallels employed by Vaughan Williams scholars: the supposed spiritual parallel between RVW and Johannes Brahms.

It has become an acceptable bad habit of scholars to compare Brahms and Vaughan Williams as though their beliefs were in some way similar. It is particularly ill advised to use Brahms’s Ein Deutsche Requiem as an example of this.24 For if Brahms’s Requiem serves as any example at all in this debate, it must serve as a stark contrast to Vaughan Williams’s approach. In writing the Requiem, Brahms deliberately avoided all direct references to Christ. This is supremely at odds with Vaughan Williams, who not only set, explicitly, the Nativity of Christ (in Hodie) but also the Second Coming of Christ (in Sancta Civitas), while the dramatic action of the Pilgrim’s Progress is utterly dependent upon the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. In short, there seems to be very little in the way of direct reference to basic Christian doctrine that Vaughan Williams didn’t explicitly set to music. A choir shouting out “Emmanuel! Emmanuel! God with us!” in response to the name “Jesus”, as in Hodie, is certainly not the way to go about emulating Brahms’s selection or setting of texts. But it is not only the music and libretti that contradict this comparison. Brahms was open about his disbelief in the immortality of the soul.25 Vaughan Williams, on the other hand, spent a career setting texts proclaiming belief in it, and nowhere can we, as yet, find unqualified evidence of Vaughan Williams ever having disbelieved in it. Whatever Vaughan Williams might have emulated musically about Brahms (and it seems he emulated much), he most certainly did not resemble the man spiritually.

VW’s understanding of Bach, expressed in the above program notes, likewise contradicts such an analysis. The utilitarian agnostic approach to setting scriptural texts suggests that, like Brahms, a composer might set a biblical text for the humanistic qualities embodied therein, jettisoning the supernatural element. Indeed, an atheist or materialist agnostic must make this interpretation: to suggest an orthodox, supernatural interpretation would be to go against their primary beliefs. If Vaughan Williams had believed this sort of thing, he would certainly have stressed the musical qualities of the Bach pieces in question, rather than their theological and evangelical implications. But in the program notes, he is careful to explain that he has done precisely the opposite, sacrificing even some subtleties of Bach’s phrasings to achieve the proper spiritual effect. In other words Vaughan Williams clearly believed the Gospel narrative, with all of its implications, to be more important to Bach’s pieces than the even notes themselves. Moreover, he worked with his choirs to ensure that they went beyond the music, just as the original Lutherans who sang them had.26 This is completely inexplicable if one subscribes to the idea that VW was an atheist or a Russellian agnostic. The only proper conclusion we can draw from this is that Vaughan Williams was neither. 

Perhaps even more telling, however, regarding VW’s personal beliefs, is the final line quoted above, wherein VW tells us of his unusual decision to give the words of the Centurion (“Truly, this was the Son of God”) not to a soloist or semi-chorus, but to the entire chorus, because “they are the triumphant cry of the whole world.” In this context, then, we understand the true meaning behind the sarcastic reply to Rutland Boughton, written almost 30 years later. His ecumenical leaning was founded on the belief that the Gospel was valid for people of all cultures, the world over.

In another letter, this one to Michael Kennedy dated January 26, 1957, Vaughan Williams writes something of importance:

Your question of who is the greatest man in my lifetime is very difficult to answer. I don’t think Churchill, somehow, but a few names taken at random would include Brahms, Walt Whitman, and General Booth…and of course there is also Sibelius. 27

There is a distinct odd-man-out in Vaughan Williams’s list of great men, and that man is General Booth. The composer refers to General William Booth (1829-1881), the founder of the Salvation Army, a Christian organization that seeks to live out the gospel in the service of the poor, by means of charity, music and the reformation of character. These tenets must have made a deep impression on Vaughan Williams, and though his youthful Fabianism was eventually lost, perhaps he discovered a more profound expression of social action in this evangelical combination. The brass band music associated with the Salvation Army must have also impressed Vaughan Williams. The combination of the gospel message and social activism within music could hardly have failed to resonate with the man who had written “No doubt it requires a certain effort to tune oneself to the moral atmosphere implied by a fine melody.” 28 What he meant in this enigmatic sentence is perhaps elucidated by his citation of William Booth as one of the greatest men of his lifetime.

Having earlier dismissed the spiritual parallel between Brahms and Vaughan Williams, it wouldn’t be surprising if Brahms was chosen for his as musical qualities. His devotion to Bach, his counterpoint, his lyric yet absolute qualities, especially in the symphonies, and his resistance to the fashion of the day are all obvious fore-runners of Vaughan Williams’s music.

Much has been made of the middleman of Vaughan Williams' triumvirate, Walt
Whitman. It has been repeatedly suggested that Vaughan Williams sought a non-Christian, or specifically secular expression of spirituality, finding this ultimately in Whitman's verse. But to prematurely end the discussion of RVW and Whitman there is to overlook the possibility that Whitman might actually have steered Vaughan Williams more towards Christianity than away from it. Such was the experience of G.K. Chesterton, Vaughan Williams's contemporary. For Chesterton, Whitman's verse provided an important step towards faith, countering the dominant secular pessimism of his day. Whitman's impact upon his own eventual conversion was of such importance that, in his dedication of The Man Who was Thursday, Chesterton included the following reference:

I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings
Far out of fish-shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things 29

It is not unreasonable to think that the effect upon Vaughan Williams might have been similar. In fact, it seems probable when we consider that Vaughan Williams tends to use Whitman for one of two purposes: the first is to discuss the immortality of the soul, and the vastness of spiritual reality (as in the Sea Symphony and Towards the Unknown Region). The second is when VW appropriates and reinterprets them in a Eucharistic sense (as we shall see in the Dona Nobis Pacem). Neither purpose is anything but completely harmonious with Christianity—in the case of the Dona Nobis Pacem, Whitman is used to strengthen the theology, not replace it. But before moving on to a discussion of that masterpiece, there are other matters concerning Vaughan Williams and specific expressions of Christianity to be addressed, which, combined with a case study of two important pieces, will demonstrate that Vaughan Williams had an understanding of mystical Christianity, going beyond even the non-sacramental social action espoused by General Booth.  

Mysticism, dogma, and other sources of confusion

Perhaps the biggest problem with RVW criticism over the decades has been its insistence on a shallow and reductive understanding of Christianity. This is a grave error, especially when dealing with a composer like Vaughan Williams. His scores and carefully arranged texts deal with almost all of the central doctrines of Christian faith, and not on a superficial level. As we shall see, he plumbs the depths of sacramental theology at times. If a scholar has nothing but a superficial, caricaturized knowledge of Christianity (such as one might gain by reading Bertrand Russell), they will find themselves ill equipped for analyzing Vaughan Williams.

A case in point is the slow movement from the Symphony in D Major (No 5). In the manuscript to the score, the movement bore the motto: ‘Upon that place there stood a cross and a little below a sepulchre…Then he said “He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.”’ This, combined with the title of the movement, Romanza, has confused some scholars, including Frank Howes, who said, “There is therefore and indeed nothing romantic in any of the normal connotations of that pliable word about this movement”. 30 Having made this statement, he doesn’t explain what it might mean in a Christian sense. Likewise, Michael Kennedy delivers a confused understanding when he wrote that the “Oriental exotic ecstasy” of Flos Campi “sweeps away the religious mysticism found by disturbed critics as consolatory evidence that this work was really by the composer of the Tallis Fantasia.”31 And as I pointed out in an earlier article, Byron Adams misinterpreted the eroticism in the Magnificat, considering it at odds with Christianity and scriptural intent.32 Three prominent Vaughan Williams scholars from three successive generations, therefore, have not known that erotic love has been used for millennia by Christians and Jews as a symbol of God’s love for the Church and Israel.  Vaughan Williams, however, knew. It is worth revisiting his letter to Mrs. Hooper of 31 October 1951, in which he wrote “…human love has always been taken as a symbol of man’s relation to divine things. The Song of Solomon has been treated in all of the Churches as a symbol of the relationship of God to man.” There is nothing esoteric or bizarre about Vaughan Williams’s theology: it is all completely orthodox and traditional. It is to be found in the writings of countless Christian mystics, including St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Teresa of Avila, and St John of the Cross. And if this theology is known, the title “Romanza” makes perfect sense, when dealing with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross; the passion in Flos Campi, which was after all inspired by the most erotic book in the Bible, also makes perfect, orthodox sense; and Vaughan Williams’s interpretation of the Magnificat becomes very Catholic, emphasizing Mary as the bride as well as the mother of God. But the scholars have searched, in vain, for latent paganism in Vaughan Williams’s symbolism. The only shame is that such confusion has developed, unabated, for three generations now. If we hope to progress in our understanding of Vaughan Williams’s pieces, it will be necessary to move beyond this unfruitful confusion.

In light of this information, it is interesting to consider some of the more dogmatic statements that have been made concerning Vaughan Williams’s religious beliefs. James Day writes:

[For Vaughan Williams]…there is no act of faith to inspire the hope of redemption either of man or of the world in which he lives through some kind of divine intervention or divine self-immolation. Prayers, however intense (and there can be no mistaking the intensity of the prayers in a work like Dona Nobis Pacem) are a projection of man’s hopes and fears, nothing more. 33

It is difficult to imagine that the man who wrote these words has ever heard or paid attention to The Pilgrim’s Progress. There, we see and hear prayers answered, we see a man transformed by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection (which Day refers to with seeming contempt as “some kind of divine intervention or divine self-immolation”), and we see a man redeemed. However Day came to his own conclusions on prayer and the ultimate destiny of humans, it certainly wasn’t from Vaughan Williams. I use this as an example, and do not wish to single out James Day: there are many such dogmatic statements in the scholarship on Vaughan Williams. None of them ever quote the composer directly when they write such dogmatic things, and none of them seem to take the entirety of the man’s career into consideration.  

Michael Kennedy has written

It is important to realize, and it cannot be over-emphasized, that the religion of Vaughan Williams’s life was music… 34

Objectively speaking, and apart from whether Vaughan Williams felt the need for religion or not, music simply is not a religion. Nor would it seem, after thousands of years of human civilization, that it is capable of ever becoming one. Ethical systems are not built upon music theory. Moral codes and societies are not held together by music. Wars are not fought over music and martyrs are not killed for music. To say therefore that “the religion of Vaughan Williams’s life was music” is a serious overstatement. What Kennedy is more likely saying is that Vaughan Williams tried to use music as a substitute for religion, though he also writes (with something bordering on contempt) of VW’s practice of music going beyond mere religion. But these statements are too large to make. It is highly unlikely that Vaughan Williams’s ethics, morals, political opinions, spirituality, marital relations and relations with other people in daily life were informed by music. Anyone attempting to live in this way would be insane, which Vaughan Williams assuredly wasn’t. These things are informed not by music, but by religion, even if one's religion is an absence of belief: atheism exists, after all, only in reference to theism. It is worth considering that even those who do not practice religion or believe in a specific religion are effected daily by religion, and Vaughan Williams was no exception—especially considering that he made much of his life’s work a musical monument to Christian scripture and theology. Ultimately, it seems more that the statement was Kennedy’s attempt to end the discussion before it could begin—the slamming of a door on the issue of Vaughan Williams and religion. But the culture Vaughan Williams inherited and contributed to; the art he was drawn to; and, most of all, the works he produced tell a different story. Moreover, Kennedy has given us no evidence to support his assertion that Vaughan Williams ever considered music to be a ‘religion.’ No passionate insistence alters this fact.

The dogmatic statements written on this subject are too numerous to mention in a single article, but they are littered throughout the literature on Vaughan Williams. The sheer volume is daunting for anyone who would try to refute them, as refutation, though simple as a matter of reasoning, is time consuming when so much has been written over the course of so many years. Meanwhile, scholars have ignored not only quotes, but people in Vaughan Williams’s life, one of whom we turn to now, beginning with a quote from his book entitled Socialism and Christianity, published in 1907.

Vaughan Williams, the English Hymnal, and Anglo-Catholicism

An old agricultural laborer once admitted to me that Socialism was "all backed by Scripture"; and I need hardly remind anyone who reads his Bible, that if I were to put down every passage that makes for Socialism, I should want a pamphlet several sizes larger than this. But nothing is more futile than the unintelligent slinging of texts; and I shall therefore confine myself strictly to the central features of Christianity, and not pick out chance sayings here and there, since that could be done with the writings of every great moral teacher that has ever lived. Christianity is different. It does not only provide a few noble sayings that Socialists would welcome. It is Socialism, and a good deal more . . .

The above passage was written by the Rev. Percy Dearmer—a man who worked with Vaughan Williams on three separate occasions over the course of several decades, beginning with their work on the English Hymnal from 1904-06.

Vaughan Williams had heard of Dearmer even before taking the job of music editor for the revolutionary new hymnal. As he put it himself, “I just knew his name vaguely as a parson who invited tramps to sleep in his drawing room.” 35 This must have impressed Vaughan Williams, who was himself a Fabian as a young man. 

There has been so little consideration of this relationship, and such little basic research done on Dearmer that Jeffrey Aldridge, in his article “A Christian Atheist”, writes “Vaughan Williams apparently was not much in sympathy with the Oxford movement and Anglo-Catholicism—the “bells and smells” wing—so there is a certain irony in the fact that it was that wing that “took up” the English Hymnal [etc].”36 Once we know even a little bit about Dearmer, such a position becomes impossible to maintain. 

First of all, the Rev. Percy Dearmer was, in fact, an Anglo-Catholic.37 He was the author of many books, including an Anglo-Catholic book on the liturgy, and he seems to have been a clerical parallel to Vaughan Williams. Nationalistic and progressive, yet returning theologically to the Tudor age to reinvigorate the liturgy and theology of England, he mirrored Vaughan Williams’s artistic quest, which also ran back to the Tudors, and was also paradoxically progressive while restoring what was lost. It goes without saying that the English Hymnal was, from the outset, an Anglo-Catholic project. Thus, nothing could be less ironic than the fact that Anglo-Catholics picked it up so quickly (it was undoubtedly the plan, from before Vaughan Williams was even recruited). But even more importantly, Aldridge’s summation of Anglo-Catholicism as “the bells and smells wing” is revealing. In doing so he superficially dismisses the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism in general.

Without knowing the reason for this flippancy, and perhaps unrelated to it, there is an important contemporary misconception that should be addressed, and that is the false relation between orthodox religious beliefs and political conservatism. In our own day and age (especially in the United States, from where I write), it is generally assumed that to be a devout Christian means one is also politically conservative, automatically. It’s important to note that this is not necessarily the case even today, and that only a very poor scholar would believe it has always been the case in every age and in every country. It certainly was not the case at the turn of the 20th century in the England of Vaughan Williams.

Anglo-Catholicism in particular, born of the Oxford Movement of the 19th Century, should not be confused with anything like a conservative political movement. From its very outset it was associated with what we would now call liberal social concerns. As John Henry Newman, the leader of the movement until his conversion to Roman Catholicism, said “the Church was formed for the express purpose of interfering or (as irreligious men would say) meddling with the world.” This included the ministering to the poor, especially the urban poor.38 The liturgical renewal which coincided with this practice of the Christian faith (Aldridge’s “bells and smells”) was hardly the substance of the movement, and hardly the sum total of what Vaughan Williams is likely to have known or thought of concerning Anglo-Catholicism. As we can see, Percy Dearmer resembled Newman and Edward Pusey, his predecessors in Anglo-Catholicism, in his concern for the poor—and not merely as a theoretical or political matter, but in an intensely personal manner, as evidenced by his reputation for letting tramps sleep in his own parlour.     

Beyond this, the assertion that Vaughan Williams had seemingly no attraction to Anglo-Catholicism seems suspect. If Aldridge meant that Vaughan Williams didn’t attend services regularly, he is of course correct, but this is a general statement rather than a specific comment upon Anglo-Catholicism. In light of many of his pieces, the spiritual substance of Anglo-Catholicism seems to have been something that appealed quite strongly to Vaughan Williams for much of his career.

As we have already seen, his early songs contain the specifically Anglo-Catholic meditations of Christina Rossetti. Even as this early period was ending, he worked with Percy Dearmer for two years. In the next decade he was to write the Five Mystical Songs, the third of which (‘Love Bade Me Welcome’) makes little sense without a specifically Catholic39 understanding of the Eucharist. If he wasn’t attracted to actual worship in Anglo-Catholic churches, he certainly was drawn to and inspired by the spiritual substance of the message, for he incorporated the most mystical aspects of Catholic theology into some of his most significant works.

Scholars also tend to paint a portrait of Vaughan Williams as a man of music alone; one who had little interest in the meaning of the texts he chose, or anything more than a superficial understanding of them. His work on the English Hymnal has been traditionally understood as a musical matter only, the conventional scholarly opinion being that he wanted to give folk music back to the people, and even if that meant dealing with  Christianity, he was prepared to do it. But this makes no sense. A true atheist or anti-Christian agnostic would have rejected such time consuming and, for Vaughan Williams, money consuming work. Moreover, they certainly wouldn’t have praised the verse of the Anglo-Catholic priest who contributed lyrics (which Vaughan Williams did).40 

Perhaps it was the enduring influence of the Rev. Percy Dearmer, or perhaps Dearmer was merely another catalyst for Vaughan Williams’s greater exploration of Eucharistic theology, but by 1911, five years after the publication of the English Hymnal, RVW had completed one of his most enduring vocal pieces: the Five Mystical Songs, a cycle of poems by George Herbert (1593-1633), another Anglican cleric with strong Catholic sacramental tendencies. Vaughan Williams actually set only four poems, but by dividing Herbert’s “Easter” into two separate songs (“Easter” and “I got me flowers”), he arrived at five. Hubert Foss, in his Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Study 41 attempted to superimpose a pantheistic understanding on the song cycle, but he did so only by misinterpreting the second song from “Easter.” The crux of Foss’s argument is the second stanza of what was to become this second mystical song (I give the first two stanzas here):

I got me flowers to straw [in VW “strew”] thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree,
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought thy sweets along with thee.

The Sun arising in the East
Though he give light and th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Foss insisted that the “they” in stanza 2 referred to the “flowers brought to strew thy way.”42 But Herbert is actually saying that the light and the perfume of nature’s sun cannot compete with the risen Christ. In doing so, he is involving an implied pun (a common technique in 17th century metaphysical verse): Christ the Son’s rising is more beautiful than the rising of Nature’s Sun itself. It is therefore an explicitly supernatural poem, and cannot be interpreted properly in a pantheistic sense.

But there is an even more specifically theological poem in the cycle, and this is ‘Love Bade Me Welcome.’ In George Herbert’s book of verse, The Temple, it stands as the final poem, and is simply entitled ‘Love.’ The poem is a dialogue between Herbert and Christ, in the context of the Eucharist (the Sacrament of Holy Communion, where Catholics believe the offered bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ). In it, Herbert finds himself welcomed by Christ (‘Love’), but pulls back, seeing himself as too dirty and sinful to accept the offer. Christ then gently informs Herbert that He Himself has answered for that very sinfulness (alluding to the sacrifice on the cross). Herbert then begs Christ to allow him to serve, but Christ instead gently commands ‘You must sit down…and taste my meat” (meaning the Blessed Sacrament—Herbert is being told, literally, to eat Christ’s body). Herbert’s response is the grateful final line, “So I did sit and eat.”

That Vaughan Williams understood Herbert’s poem and wanted to emphasize this exact reading is shown by his incorporation of the ancient chant attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘O Sacrum Convivium’ in the wordless background chorus. The text of the Aquinas reads thus:

O sacred banquet
at which Christ is received
the memory of his passion is renewed,
our souls are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future is given to us.
This represents the very mystical center of Catholic worship. It is therefore clear that Vaughan Williams had no desire to use Herbert’s words separate from their original purpose. In fact he strengthens the poem with this traditional Catholic chant, written by the man who had contributed the theology behind the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—that the bread and wine become, physically, the Body and Blood of Christ during the Eucharist. The song can only be fully interpreted in the light of this theology. RVW left no room for a pantheistic reading, no room even for a Calvinist reading (which would deny the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament). In light of the music and text, Foss’s interpretation falls, and with it, any credible arguments of Pantheism in the piece.


A Case Study of Christian Depth: Dona Nobis Pacem

A large number of the most important pieces of RVW contain religious symbolism that has gone unnoticed by scholars for over half a century now. The argument posed here is that to deny this symbolism is also to deny them of their depth, keeping us from recognizing the true greatness of Vaughan Williams’s artistic achievement. Importantly, this very symbolism contradicts the notion of Vaughan Williams’s using sacred texts in a secular manner. In fact, the opposite is to be found, strikingly in the example of a misunderstood masterpiece such as the Dona Nobis Pacem.

The Dona Nobis Pacem has puzzled critics since its first performances in 1936. Undoubtedly effective in performance, it has often been criticized as being too much of a patchwork quilt on the page—a hodgepodge of Whitman’s verse, parliamentary speech, quotes from the Bible and the Mass. While it is rightfully acknowledged as a forerunner to Britten’s War Requiem, it seems to make no coherent sense to the majority of those who have written about it. But the critics have approached the piece with the assumption that it was written by a hardened agnostic, uninterested in Christian theology or mysticism, and because of this disposition they have missed the unity of the libretto, permeated as it is with Eucharistic symbolism. Once a Christian (and specifically Catholic) perspective is allowed, one sees how much of an understatement it is to say that Vaughan Williams “set text.” In actuality, his genius was the musical interpretation of texts (a much rarer things, and perhaps where Vaughan Williams might lay claim to supremacy among composers). In the Dona Nobis Pacem, he reinterprets the poetry of Whitman by inserting it into the context of the Catholic Mass. 

The poetic structure of the libretto is marked by a repetition of the phrase “dona nobis pacem” (“grant us peace”). Day has written that this phrase comes from the Requiem Mass43 but this is incomplete: it is in fact recited at every Mass, Requiem or not. It is the final part of the Agnus Dei, which in English may be translated:

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.      
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace.44      

This is a prayer with a specific context: the high point of the Mass, after the breaking of the bread, and as such the spiritual and mystical center of Catholicism. For Catholics, the Eucharist represents the intersection of eternity with temporality, the divine with the human, heaven with earth. Catholic tradition and theology see this as the height of earthly life and experience, as a fulfillment of the Jewish Passover, a memorial of the Last Supper and the Passion of Christ, and a pre-figuration of the Wedding feast of the Lamb, written about in the book of Revelation.45 It is so holy that, prior to reception of the Sacrament, communicants receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (sometimes called “confession” or the Sacrament of Penance).46  Each of these elements is written into Vaughan Williams's cantata, and in understanding the complex interrelationships of text to the theology of the Mass, reveals the libretto and piece to be far more coherent and remarkable than critics have noticed. The briefest possible overview will be given here.

In reiterating the words dona nobis pacem, Vaughan Williams highlights what the piece is: a meditation on the prayer. Everything else in the piece happens within those words. Like a person reciting a rosary while meditating on the its mysteries, the piece operates on two levels: what we can call the “verbal prayer” (the Agnus Dei itself) and the “meditation” (the Whitman and other texts which relate to the Agnus Dei). Another way of putting it is that the Agnus Dei serves as a prism for the rest of the text.
In this meditation on the need for peace, Vaughan Williams first shows us nothing like peace: in fact he gives us warfare and turmoil, throwing us into Whitman’s apocalyptic “Beat! Beat! Drums!” Because of the eucharistic context already provided by the soprano’s “dona nobis pacem,” certain elements of the Whitman text will stand out to those attuned, especially the lines ordering the drums and bugles “Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation/Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride.” The symbolism being used by Whitman, and strengthened by the Eucharistic context given by VW, is from the Bible. Before his Passion, Christ reminded the disciples of the prophecy of Isaiah: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”(Matthew 26:31). Likewise, Jesus refers to himself as the Bridegroom who will be taken from them (“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Matthew 9:15). ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ is therefore being used to symbolize the Passion of Christ, and its effects on our world, and conversely, the sharing of the faithful in the Passion. 

This segues directly into a section of the piece that shares its very name with a sacrament linked to the Eucharist: Reconciliation. From a Catholic perspective, many things jump out: specifically the title itself and the phrases “Word over all” and  “a man divine as myself.” “Word over all” in a Christian context is guaranteed to resonate with the opening of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Vaughan Williams was to set this text in Hodie, but by context he has also implied it here in Whitman’s poem. Later in the poem, he sets the words “a man divine as myself.” This might have meant something completely different to Whitman, but through Vaughan Williams’s prism of the Agnus Dei, there is a Catholic implication that a man receives the divinity of Christ into himself, physically, through the Eucharist. This poem about reconciliation, then, fits symbolically in at least three different ways into the context of the Agnus Dei. It is difficult to think this might be coincidence. 

“The Dirge for Two Veterans” parallels the offertory, the part of the Mass where bread and wine are brought to the altar. Whitman sees a father and son, both dead. Is this the sacrifice itself, the time of mourning on the first Holy Saturday? The Agnus Dei reminds of the Man who said “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). Theology teaches that we can give nothing to God in response to His Passion and death, except our love, freely, which is what Whitman ends up giving those two symbolic veterans.

The final sections of the piece, which have eluded scholars over the decades, are of tremendous significance. Vaughan Williams uses a quote of John Bright, referring the Passover, which is directly related, by typological significance, to the Eucharist. Likewise he references the “new heaven and new earth” which signifies the end times from the Book of Revelation, implying the wedding feast of the lamb, which is essential to Catholic Eucharistic theology. None of the text is haphazard: all of it serves to symbolically demonstrate some aspect of the Eucharist. This is completely inexplicable if we are to accept the accounts of Vaughan Williams given by the scholars, who suggest that he jettisoned the spiritual elements of Christian thought. Instead, he did the opposite: his works stand as some of the most compelling and profound witnesses to Christianity.

Commentators have wryly noted that the peace Vaughan Williams requests in the cantata was not granted: WWII happened anyway. But surely this is to miss the point of the piece. The piece itself knows that earthly wars will still be a part of reality—even after sincere prayer—Vaughan Williams highlights this by making “Beat! Beat! Drums!” the first poetic text of the piece. Christianity is not a facile utopian ideology like Marxism; it offers no promises of ending human suffering by mere social theory. Rather, Christians understand that this mortal life will be fraught with wars and rumors of wars: that suffering is inevitable in a fallen world, but through Christ it can be redemptive. Ultimate peace, for the Christian, is only to be found in Christ, and Christ is followed by picking up one’s cross: ultimate peace is therefore linked to redemptive suffering, by means of holy mystery. Vaughan Williams’s vision of peace, presented in the Dona Nobis Pacem, is revealed only after suffering, reconciliation, the Passover, and the apocalypse. Only then do the soprano and chorus linger, truly satisfied, on the word pacem. This represents an understanding of some very detailed theology. How Vaughan Williams managed to touch all of this symbolism so profoundly is mysterious, and we shall probably not know the full answer in this life. But one thing is clear: he did more than simply “set texts” that could be experienced by devout believers: he meditated on them, and presented profound conclusions that resonate with Christian theology.

The question of RVW and religion now becomes more complex. Instead of it being a question of his beliefs alone, whatever they might have been, the more profound question becomes what religion’s and, ultimately, God’s impact was upon him.


 Much has been written about the religious beliefs of Ralph Vaughan Williams, usually the same few opinions over and over again. A few quotes have been exaggerated, some misunderstood, many ignored. Lost in all of this has been the relatively clear trajectory of an artist who continuously investigated and deepened his meditations on Christianity. His scope was nothing short of incredible, giving us intimations of immortality in the poems of Christina Rossetti, to explorations of the spiritual life in A Sea Symphony, to his intimate discussion of the Eucharist in the Five Mystical Songs, to the apocalyptic splendor of Sancta Civitas, to the patiently endured faithful suffering in Riders to the Sea, to the Eucharistic mystery of Dona Nobis Pacem, to the tracing of an entire spiritual journey to the Cross, to death, and to eternal life in The Pilgrim’s Progress, to joyful bursts of angelic song in Hodie, to the final climbing of the tower of Salisbury Cathedral in the farewell of the 9th Symphony: his works document and share a consistently engaged and intuitive grasp of the mysteries of the Christian faith.  

So, like it or not, scholars will eventually have to accept that Vaughan Williams was a Christian composer, at least in that his works are Christian. In other words, his pieces bear witness to the theology, the doctrines, and the mysticism of Christianity. Regarding his own struggles with belief, it is good to remember the age into which he was born. Darwinism, some strands atheistic, others not, competed with Creationism; the Salvation Army was formed, the Anglo-Catholic movement and Christian Socialism were vibrant, and legalized Roman Catholicism in England was not yet half a century old when RVW was born. Violent secular atheism was ascendant, in various forms of Marxism and, later, Nazism. Vaughan Williams himself was appalled by these secular perversions of true humanism, writing to Rutland Boughton in defense of his choice of Bunyan for is opera:    

    to what you accuse me of--i.e. ‘re-dressing an old theology’, it seems to
                me that some of your ideas are a good deal more moribund than Bunyan’s
                theology:--the old fashioned republicanism and Marxism which led direct
                to the appalling dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, or your 
                Rationalism, which dates from about 1880 and has entirely failed to solve any 
                problems of the Universe. 47

Theosophy, astrology, and other aspects of the occult were also ascendant at the time, as demonstrated by poets like William Butler Yeats, and Vaughan Williams’s own close friend, Holst. Yet Vaughan Williams set almost nothing but Christian texts, illuminating them with his own penetrating meditations. His age was rationalistic, still dominated in many ways by the paradigm of Enlightenment philosophy, with its emphasis on the supremacy of the human mind, alienated from the body and creation. Vaughan Williams’s art leaps back in time, retrieving the lost values from before the age of Descartes, bringing them into the future and revealing, along the way, their timelessness. Herbert, Shakespeare, Donne, Crashaw, Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Bunyan: these poets resonated with Vaughan Williams intuitively, presenting him a means to reconnect with a vision of the world before it had become the Waste Land, spiritually. Attempting to define the religious beliefs of an artist, and how those beliefs impact or shape their art, is a precarious exercise. This difficulty is heightened by the fact that Christianity is not a position, but a path. A person’s relationship to that path is never static, but dynamic. Whether Vaughan Williams could rationally assent to Christian faith is perhaps of less importance than scholars have thought, for the argument was presented by an age that had rigged the question. His music assents, and that, ultimately, is what he left us. 

I will perhaps be accused of doing the very thing I was critical of at the beginning of this article: of presenting my own, biased “Christian-RVW.” But that is not exactly what I’ve done. There is no wishful thinking that will turn RVW, retroactively, into a practicing Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Baptist, or Seventh Day Adventist, nor does this article propose such an endeavor. Instead, this article has shown that Vaughan Williams’s atheist and agnostic phases were no quite so strong as scholars have asserted; that his works can not be construed as pantheistic; that his agnosticism is neither of the Russellian nor the Brahmsian variety; and that his works are profound meditations, perfectly orthodox, in deep harmony with Christian theology. Though it is impossible to determine the ultimate reason scholars of the past have written the things they have about Vaughan Williams, it seems that their insistence on an overly reductive understanding of religion and agnosticism was a type of wishful thinking. Perhaps, like academia in general, they fell prey to the Christophobic zeitgeist of the last half-century or so. Just as it does no good to quibble about whether Vaughan Williams was really a secret Christian in disguise, so it is useless to claim that his works are not profoundly Christian; that is, that they are derived from a Christian world-view, informed by Christian theology, and resonant with the Christian message. If Vaughan Williams is to assume his rightful place in the history of music, if he is to be given more than the second-tier status he is currently given by the majority of academics, it is the Christian symbolism within his works that will have to be brought to light. For it is in this that he most clearly surpasses his contemporaries. What other composer of his day produced such monumental meditations on the nativity, the apocalypse, the relationship of the soul to God, and the Eucharist? In this respect, his name is worthy of discussion with the company of Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, JS Bach, Bruckner, and, after him, Messiaen. To suppress this dimension of his art, and this achievement, only diminishes his legacy, and denies the listening public a doorway into some of the greatest masterpieces Western Civilization has produced. To bring Vaughan Williams’s musical achievement the recognition it deserves, and to firmly establish all of his masterpieces in the repertoire of all orchestras, we must not give short shrift to the eternal values which informed his art, and upon which he staked the work of his career. Scholars must move beyond mere ideologies, beyond narrow definitions, beyond reductive caricatures, and beyond mere wishful thinking, plunging into the depths of the works themselves.  


Eric Seddon is a freelance writer and poet living in Cleveland, Ohio, in the USA. He holds a BM from The Hartt School in clarinet performance, and an MM in music History from Butler University, where his thesis was written on Vaughan Williams. His poetry has appeared in many journals, including the most recent edition of the New York Quarterly.

1 Barr, John.“RVW and Religion” Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society June 2005
2 Adams, Byron. “Scripture, Church and culture: biblical texts in the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams” Vaughan Williams Studies. Alain Frogley ed. p.101
3 Vaughan Williams, Ursula. RVW: a biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams. OUP, 1964. p 13
4 Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Abridged by Philip Appleman W.W. Norton, NY London, 1970. p.116
5 UVW pg 11
6 UVW pg 24
7 Kennedy, Michael. The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. OUP 1964, pg 42
8 Russell, Bertrand. “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” Why I am not a Christian and other essays. Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1957.  pg 24
9 Russell, Bertrand. “Why I am not a Christian” Why I am not a Christian and other essays. Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1957.  pg 22
10 Russell. Preface to Why I am not a Christian and other essays. Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1957. pg i
11 Russell. “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” Why I am not a Christian and other essays. Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1957. pg47 
12 UVW pg 138
13 The translation used by James is Day is by F.J. Church
14 Howes, Frank. The Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. OUP 1954, p150
15 Kennedy pg 194
16 Day, James. Vaughan Williams. OUP 1998, p103-104
17 Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. Scribner (New York). 2000. p25
18 Kennedy pg 313
19 Kennedy pg 312
20 Adams, Byron, p99
21 I am indebted to Timothy Arena for a conversation a few years ago, where he pointed out the term “5th Day Adventists.”
22 Seddon, Eric. “The Pilgrim’s Progress in Context: a preliminary study.” The Journal of the RVW Society (No 26 February 2003)
23 UVW pgs 425-26
24 cf. Adams, Byron. To be a Pilgrim: A Meditation on Vaughan Williams and Religion. The Journal of the RVW Society No 33 June 05, p 4
25 Brahms said to his friend Richard Heuberger,"Apart from Frau Schumann I'm not attached to anybody with my whole soul! And truly that is terrible and one should neither think such a thing nor say it. Is that not a lonely life! Yet we can't believe in immortality on the other side. The only true immortality lies in one's children." Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford (1997, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)
26 UVW pg 425
27 Kennedy pg 388
28 Vaughan Williams, Ralph. The English Hymnal pg ix.
29 Chesterton, G.K. The Collected Poems. Methuen: London 1950. pg 110
30 Howes pg 48
31 Kennedy 187
32 Seddon, Eric. “Mysticism and Joyful Solemnity: Two moments of D Major in The Pilgrim’s Progress”. Journal of the RVW Society.
33 Day pg 103
34 Kennedy pg 42
35 UVW pg70
36 Aldridge, Jeffrey. “A Christian Atheist.” Journal of the RVW Society. No 33. June 2005. p7
37 G.K Chesterton paints a delightful portrait of Dearmer in his autobiography, saying “Dr. Dearmer was in the habit of walking about in a cassock and biretta which he had carefully reconstructed as being the right pattern for an Anglican or Anglo-Catholic priest; and he was humorously grieved when its strictly traditional and national character was misunderstood by the little boys in the street.”
38 Booty, John E. “Christian Spirituality: From Wilberforce to Temple”; William J. Wolf, ed. Anglican Spirituality. Morehouse-Barlow, Co. Inc. 1982 pg 79
39 From here on in the text, I will use Catholic, with the capital “C”. The ecclesiological disputes are many and intricate between all of the various denominations claiming catholicity, and it is beyond the scope or purpose of the present article to address them. Here the capital C is intended only to give clarity to certain doctrines Anglo-Catholics hold in common with Roman Catholics, especially Eucharistic doctrine. Since the foundations of these doctrines, and my understanding of them expressed in the essay, are most clearly formulated and propagated by the Roman Catholic Church, I will be using them as the basis for my sacramental arguments, directly, rather than sifting through the various disputes in the history of 19th century Anglicanism, which, worthy as they are to discuss, would be too laborious and distracting in an article on Vaughan Williams.    
40 Vaughan Williams referred to a “fine hymn of Dearmer’s”: the setting of a Wagner tune for which there was no appropriate text. This signifies that RVW was not only involved with the texts, but that he had an appreciation for them. 
41 Foss, Hubert. Ralph Vaughan Williams: a study. George G. Harrap and Co, Ltd, 1950
42 Foss pg 106
43 Day pg 132
44 Roman Missal. Scepter Publishers 1993.  p.737
45 cf. Cantalamessa, Reniero. The Eucharist: Our Sanctification. The Liturgial Press 1993. and Hahn, Scott. The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth. Doubleday 1999.
46 Once again, theological differences between those denominations asserting catholicity would create a lengthy discussion not pertinent to the present article. My exposition is based upon Roman Catholic teaching, which requires that a person is “bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins once a year.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to say that “Anyone who is aware of having committed mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion…without first receiving sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession.” (Catechism, no 1457)  
47 UVW pg 304

No comments:

Post a Comment