Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Robert Longman

Letter No.: 
Monday [December 1937]

The White Gates,
Westcott Road,

Dear Bobby

I spent yesterday in bed - nursing a cold - so I decided to try and answer your long & splendid letter of a long time ago.
Writing in bed was difficult - so now I am copying it out in hopes of making it more or less legible.
(1) I agree with you that all music must have beauty - the problem being what is beauty - so when you say you do not think my F.mi Symphony1 [is beautiful] my answer must be that I do think it beautiful - not, that I did not mean it to be beautiful because it reflects unbeautiful things - because we know that beauty can come from unbeautiful things (e.g. King Lear, Rembrandts School of Anatomy Wagners Niebelungs etc)
As a matter of fact
(1)  I am not at all sure that I like it myself now [-] all I know is that it is what I wanted to do at the time.
(2)  I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external e.g. the state of Europe - but simply because it occurred to me like this - I can’t explain why - I don’t think that sitting down & thinking about great things ever produces a great work of art (at least I hope not - because I never do so - & when you state your belief in me, dear Bobby, I feel the completest of frauds) - a thing just comes - or it doesn’t - usually doesn’t - I always live in hope, as all writers must, that one day I shall “ring the bell” - in younger days when one thought one was going to do the real thing each time & each time discovered one hadn’t done it, one said hopefully “next time” - but when one touches on 65 one begins to wonder.
I sometimes think I ought to train my mind or my soul or whatever it is by exercizes as the Yogis do - but I can never make up my mind to it.
On the other hand I think, sometimes, that I ought not to try to do the greatest thing on earth, which no fellow will understand, but to use my skill, such as I have, for doing useful work.  E.g. things for Div:2 kind of people to sing & enjoy (By the way do you know of any good poem which would make into a cantata on the lines of “The Revenge”2  - I mean of course not on Spain3 but in form & design)
I think that is all for the present.


1.  i.e. the fourth symphony.
2.  The poem by Tennyson, which had been set by Stanford.
3.  Kennedy in Works of Vaughan Williams reads ‘span’.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 1714/1/10, ff.53-55
General notes: 

Date suggested in a note by either UVW or recipient. Longman wrote a note in October 1958 to UVW on the reverse of the last page: ‘You know of course, what he told me about the 6th symphony, when I & all the critics said it represented the dreadful world in which we lived & that the last movement was the completely desolated world of the future.  He said that he had no conscious idea whatsoever of doing this. I think, however, that he realised that he had done this quite unconsciously’ (MS Mus. 1714/1/10, f.96).

Cobbe 287; Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, pp.246-247.
Original database number: