Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to the Editor of The Listener

Letter No.: 
VWL5131
[9 August, 1956]

London, N.W.1

Sir,
My attention has been called to a talk by Mr. Michael Tippett printed in THE LISTENER of July 26.  This talk contains an extraordinary sentence - extraordinary at all events for one whom I believe to be an intelligent musician. 'Parry's "Job" has gone the way of all such works.  For the one certain thing about academic mediocrity is that it cannot outlast its generation'.  I wonder if Mr. TIppett has ever studied 'Job', or did he take his opinion ready made from an inept, and evidently partipris criticism which he quotes from the writings of Bernard Shaw?
Parry was never mediocre, if the word means 'doing nothing in particular and doing it very well'.  Parry was potentially a great composer, but he often failed because there was some hitch in the process of artistic incubation.  But this is not mediocrity.  When he suceeded he did so magnificently.  'Blest Pair of Sirens' and 'Jerusalem' are as young as they were, and 'Job' still lives among choral societies as the sales list testifies.  'Job' seems to me to contain some of the best (as well, I admit, the worst) of Parry: witness the superb exordium which later develops into a great coda; Job's lament, and the splendid choral passage 'Hath the rain a father?' to mention only one example of choral writing.
There are weak places in 'Job', notably Satan's melodramatic outburst and the shepherd boy's song: but it is to be noted that in these passages he was his own librettist.  When he goes to the Bible for his inspiration, in my opinion he rises to the occasion, in spite of Bernard Shaw's foolish blame.
I am surprised that Mr. Tippett uses the word 'academic' loosely and inaccurately.  It was apparently the opinion of Shaw that everything taught at an academy was necessarily wrong.  Did Bernard Shaw ever take the trouble to find out what and how Stanford and Parry taught their pupils?  All I can say is that Parry's watchword as a teacher was 'characteristic'.  Was this academic?  When I learned from Stanford he made me write a waltz.  Was this academic?
Mr. Tippett quotes Shaw as accusing Stanford of teaching rules of composition à la Brahms, which was to his mind, apparently, the very depth of dry-as-dust pedantry.  I wonder what Shaw would have thought if he could have seen the Albert Hall filled to capacity on a Brahms night at the Promenade Concerts?
Yours, etc.
Ralph Vaughan Williams

General notes: 

Printed in The Listener magazine, Thursday 9 August, 1956, headed "Bernard Shaw as a Music Critic".

Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
The Listener (vol.LVI, no.1428), 9 August, 1956, p.3.