Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Michael Tippett

Letter No.: 
Dec 17 [1941]

The White Gates,

Dear Tippett

Here is something for you to show which is the best I can do.
I will not argue with you about your pacifist scruples which I respect though I think they are all wrong.
But I do join issue with you in the idea that it is anyone’s business at a time like this to sit apart from the world & create music until he is sure he has done all he can to preserve the world from destruction and helped to create a world where creative art will be a possibility.
If your house was on fire you would not ignore it & go on writing till you had helped to put it out and saved the inmates - if for no other reason because if your music paper was burnt you would not be able to go on composing.
There is a great danger now of our spiritual music paper being burnt - we must save it now so that creative art may flourish later.
This does not apply, of course, to using one’s craft for a definite useful purpose (e.g. arranging Xmas carols for the troops in Iceland which I did the other day1).
I certainly can’t feel that peace of mind which is necessary for composing until I have done all the little jobs which I believe will help us out of our present terrible dilemma (too few, alas, for me with my advanced years and circumstances2).
I remember when I was a small boy reading a story of a saint who vowed to spend so many hours a day in solitary meditation. One day the calls of kindness & charity & distress were so insistent that she failed to keep the appointed number of hours - But she realised that in spite of that her vow had been kept.
Another point - you are not the only composer in this predicament. What about Rubbra & Finzi & Bush who have all temporarily given up their creative work & gone on to various kinds of ‘war-work’. If you are to be exempted so as to carry on your composition, why not they?
However wrong & dreadful we think war (and we all do) - here it is & we can’t shirk3 it - & surely we can all do a little bit to try & bring it to an end.


1. Twelve carols, of which nine were published as Nine carols for male voices, Catalogue of Works 1942/4. The arrangement had been completed in November 1941 (see VWL1585), a fact which provides a date for the present letter.
2. The circumstances were largely that Adeline was crippled with arthritis and VW didn’t like to be away from home for very long at a time.
3.  "shirk" possible reading.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 161D, ff.120-122
Cobbe 374
Original database number: