O Thou Transcendent

o thou transcendent’: the life of ralph vaughan williams

Five presents this comprehensive profile of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, from award-winning filmmaker Tony Palmer. The film charts the life of the composer with contributions from friends, family and admirers, alongside performances of his symphonies, choral pieces, chamber music and film scores.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s death, director Tony Palmer presents this loving tribute to a giant of British music, whose massive body of work encompassed everything from pastoral elegies to folk music, hymns and opera. “I think Vaughan Williams is the most underestimated, the most misunderstood of all the great 20th century English composers,” says Palmer. “What a complex and disturbing artist he is – a man who wrote some of the most deeply unsettling music of our time.”

The film begins with Vaughan Williams’s privileged background as a descendent of the Wedgewood family and a great-nephew of Charles Darwin. In a recording made at the end of his life, Vaughan Williams himself talks about how his family despaired of his choice of career. He recalls that one of his aunts called him “that foolish young man who will go on working at music when he is so hopelessly bad at it”.

Yet Vaughan Williams’s perseverance won him a place at the Royal College of Music, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Gustav Holst. At Cambridge, he enjoyed a “spiritual awakening”, in the sense that “even if you didn’t believe in God, there was something beyond – something mysterious,” he later recalled. Throughout his life he would maintain an ambivalent, agnostic attitude towards God, despite finding inspiration in religious writing.

In 1903, Vaughan Williams first encountered English folk music on a trip to Essex, and from then on became a dedicated collector of this dying art. He travelled the country to record folk singers on primitive equipment, and tried to convince them to write down their songs for posterity. Folk music became a direct influence on his symphonies – to the disdain of many of his contemporaries.

At the same time, Vaughan Williams published the English Hymnal, a definitive compilation of traditional hymns and new compositions. “I think the Church of England has a huge amount to be thankful for,” the Archbishop of Canterbury says of his work. “I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to canonise an agnostic, but at least for his contribution there, I think we owe a great deal.”

During World War I, Vaughan Williams volunteered for gruelling service in the ambulance corps. “He refused to use his family connections and buy himself a position as an officer,” says his biographer, Stephen Johnson. “He opted for life on the front line… and what he saw out there was absolutely horrible.” In World War II, he showed a similar dedication by salvaging scrap metal and working as a fire warden.

In later years, the composer was to cement his reputation with work including his adaptation of the Book of Job, ‘The Old Hundredths’ composition for the Queen’s coronation, and an eighth symphony at the age of 83. His music has inspired musicians as diverse as André Previn, John Adams, Neil Tennant and Richard Thompson, all of whom offer their thoughts on his legacy. Tony Palmer, meanwhile, claims that the darker, philosophical undertones to Vaughan Williams’s work confirm his greatness. “He bestrode English music in the 20th century like a colossus,” he says. “Every aspect of musical life stood in his shadow.”

This film contains exclusive performances of Vaughan Williams’s work from The London Philharmonic Orchestra, The National Youth Orchestra, The English Chamber Orchestra and Gloucester Cathedral Choir.

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