Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Maurice R.A. Reeve

Letter No.: 
January 15th 1957

From R. Vaughan Williams,
as from 10, Hanover Terrace,
Regents Park,
London, N.W.1.


Dear Mr Reeve,
I was much interested in your letter, and I am delighted to think that our fighting forces take such intelligent interest in the Arts. This was not the case fifty years ago!
As regards your special question - I do not think Beethoven's music - or anybody else's - has any "meaning". or rather, it has a very definite meaning, 'too definite', as Mendelssohn said, 'to be expressed in anything but its own terms'.
Of course it is possible, as in opera, to particularise the generalisations of music, so as to focus on some particular factual point. And some people do it with absolute music as well, but I think this is a mistake. Beethoven, it is true, dedicated his Eroica Symphony to Napoleon: but this does not mean that the music "meant" Napoleon - and when he took Napoleon's name off the title page he did not alter his music.
You will remember, also, that in his Pastoral symphony, he definitely declared that it was  more a description of feeling that a definition of facts. I think it is purely incidental that his even number symphonies are of lighter character that the odd numbers. After all, no. 7 is all lighthearted, except for the slow movement.
You kindly ask whether there is any meaning attached to my symphonies: I admit that I have called four of them, Sea, London, Pastoral and Antartica. In the Sea Sympony,1 the words locate the emotion, & the mottoes, the Antartica, but probably [t]he music would get on just as well without them. But I hope that the words & the mottoes set the right mood to listen to the music. That is all I wish & all I hope for. In some notes which I once wrote about my London symphony, I deprecated the notion that it was descriptive, & suggested that it ought rather to be labelled 'Symphony by a Londoner'. I feel very angry with certain critics who will have it that my 4th symphony "means" war, & my 5th "means" peace - & so on. If people get help in appreciating music from this descent from the general to the particular, - good luck to them. But the opposite can be equally true. It is said that Beethoven's tragic Muss es sein movement in his last quartet arose out of a quarrel with his landlady!
I am so glad you wrote to me, but I expect you did not expect this cartload of suggestions as a consequence.
Yrs sincerely
R Vaughan Williams

1. sic.

Location of copy:

Shelfmark of copy: 
MS Mus. 1714/1/22, ff. 126-132
General notes: 

In the hand of UVW, signed by VW.