Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Olin Downes

Letter No.: 
VWL3844
[24 January, 1941]

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

Dear Mr Downes

(This is for your own ears only - not for publication please)

I have been sent a copy of your very interesting article on programme music of Dec 8th.1
There is only one thing I want to put to you.  You suggest that I was partially responsible for the appalling "programme" which Albert Coates attached to my "London" symphony.
The story is as follows.  When Coates first wanted to do the symphony in America he saw that the American public must have a detailed programme or they would not listen to the work - & that his wife had written one.  When I saw it I was horrified - but what was I to do?  I modified the worst parts & let it go (weakly I realize now) imagining that it would appear once and never again - But when I found it was being attached to several performances I did my best to scotch it.  pto  It is not true that I authorized it & then backed out of my own 'explanation'.  I want the symphony to express the spirit of London.  If my music does not do so, it will not help to say that a certain bit "means" the Thames or Bloomsbury, etc - if it does represent the spirit then the detail can be left to the hearer's own imagination - the eternal peace which surrounds the turmoil I have tried to express in the music - to some the river may give that - to another not.  You know the story of Erik Satie who told Debussy that in his "de l'aube a midi sur le mer"2 he particularly admired the bit at 11.35 A.M.
I do not want any "11.35 A.M. interpretation of my music.
Yours sincerely
R Vaughan Williams

P.S.  I am sorry to go on being so egotistical but what I hope is that people who know London will recognise in my music the same emotion which London gives them, and those who do not know London will get an emotional picture of what London means to some people.  It seems to me that if you plant direction posts all along the line people will simply be worried with wondering which is which & not get the spirit of the music.
I admit I have made a few suggestions (besides the obvious Big Ben & the street-songs) which may help people get in the right mood - but then if the music has achieved its purpose they need not be known necessary - & if the music has not achieved its purpose then no amount of sign-posts will make it do so.
R VW
P.P.S  You wd be astonished if you could see how normal life appears in England at present.  I think your papers give rather sensational accounts of the feeling condition of England - some dear American friends sent us a packet of food the other day!
We are very confident though we realize we have a hard row to hoe - & we know how we value the help & friendship of you people over the water.

Mr Olin Downes,
The New York Times,
Times Square,
New York City,
U.S.A.


1.  'Composition wih a program: stories they tell or pictures they paint are overlooked in tendency to be superior to descriptive music', New York Times, Sunday 8 December 1940.
2.  Debussy's La Mer, first movement.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Olin Downes Papers, MS688, B63, F19
General notes: 

Postmarked 24 January 1941.

Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
Atlas, Allan W., “Ralph Vaughan Williams and Olin Downes: Newly Uncovered Letters”, Journal of the RVW Society No. 60 (June, 2014)
Original database number: 
Downes