Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Edward J. Dent

Letter No.: 
Oct 21 [1940]

From R. Vaughan Williams,
The White Gates,
Westcott Road,

Dear Dent

Many thanks for your book.1 I did not write before because I wanted to read it carefully more than once. It seems to me a very good practical guide for beginners. It seems to me however that you do (in common with all other writers on fugue except Gedalge2) not give enough attention to the episode which to my mind is the real value of fugue as a training - the power of going on and covering long stretches as Bach can do and not be merely perfunctory as Handel usually is (e.g. the episodes in “He trusted in God”).
Incidentally I wish you had mentioned Higgs’ book which I think is one of the best - I know he commits the unpardonable sin of praising Bach and holding him up for a model.3
By the way you lay great stress on the emotional value of fugue - and then advise not to study Bach - and expect them to achieve the emotional side of fugue from those dull perfunctory affairs in Mozart’s masses and the purely mechanical developments in Handel. - I admit that many of the 48 are not fugue[s?]  except in name but what about Book I No I, Book II no II and the great E major.
You never suggest a way I believe in of taking say the E major and analysing it and writing a parallel fugue on the same model.
I am sorry you bow the knee to the fashionable “denigree”-ing of Bach - it is the old story - as soon as a great man becomes popular he is put on the Index Expurgatorius - & it is ridiculous to insinuate that he has been galvanised into life by the efforts of a few people - That will never make an unpopular man popular (e.g. the frantic efforts of certain people to boost e.g. Van Dieren4 or Berlioz).
Incidentally do we really still call Mendelssohn “respectable” & Brahms “academic”? I thought all that died in the 19th century.
Now, having said all the nasty things I can think of I end by saying that I shall certainly use your book as a basis for teaching fugue to beginners if I ever have to again (which Heaven forfend) & I hope every one else will do so - only as it is not published how are they to get hold of it?

R. Vaughan Williams

1. Dent had apparently sent VW the typescript of Notes on Fugue for Beginners (Cambridge 1941).
2. André Gédalge, whose Traité de la fugue (Paris, 1901) is described in The New Grove (1980) as unsurpassed.
3. James Higgs taught harmony at the Royal College of Music from 1884 and later became Professor of Organ until his retirement in 1901. His book Fugue was published by Novello in 1878.Together with Sir Frederick Bridge he prepared en edition of Bach's organ works for the same firm which remained standard in Great Britain for many years.
4. VW is probably thinking of Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine in connexion with Van Dieren. For a similar comment see VWL1407.


Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
Dent Archive undated
Cobbe 349
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