Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Michael Kennedy

Letter No.: 
July 1st 1956.

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

My dear Michael,

I am dictating this from my bed.  I am perfectly well, but the doctor says I must not put my foot down till I am cured of the phlebitis – or whatever it is I have got.
You discuss so many interesting things and ask so any pertinent questions in your letter that I will take them in order.
Have you got a copy of the Aeroplanes?1 If not I will send you one.  There was very little in the press about it.
Merry Wives: This is altogether delightful.  I think it is the best of the operas on the Falstaff saga.  There is a splendid Buffo duet for Falstaff and Ford a delightful quintet with Fenton & Ann making love in the middle of the stage, and the rival lovers hiding behind bushes and making incidental remarks.2 
Do you happen to know if John ever got a copy of my Partita for string orchestra?3 I left it for him in the artist’s room at the Festival Hall, but it may have been forgotten.

With regard to Parry and Stanford, I think Howes and the other critics are so frightened of not being up to date: but I believe they will come back into their own.4 Do you know an early choral work by Parry, The glories of our blood and state?5 It is a bit Brahmsy, but, I think, very fine.  There is an interesting story about it which I believe is true.  It had been put down in the programme of the Bach Choir in 1887: then it occured to one of the Committee that it would hardly do, seeing that the Royal Family were among the Patrons of the Choir, for them to sing a piece about Thrones and Crowns toppling down in the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.  So a friend, I think Stanford, went to Parry and asked him to write something else: whereupon, he wrote Blest Pair of Sirens.  We must not judge, with all respect to you, the vitality of a composer entirely from the Press.  Parry and Stanford, may, according to Howes, be historic relics; but it would take a good many fingers of a good many hands to count up the number of annual performances, even now, of Blest Pair, Songs of the Fleet, - not to mention a large number of part songs and other smaller works which continually appear on programmes.6

I fear I cannot put Mackenzie on a level with Parry and Stanford. He was a sound craftsman, and his Benedictus for violin solo, is, I imagine, still popular but that is all.7 As regards Bax, I am beginning to feel rather doubtful.  He had, perhaps, more musical invention than any of his contemporaries, but, as you say, it was quite undisciplined.  I wish he had had some gruelling lessons from Stanford.  But probably they would have quarrelled, and nothing would have come from it.  I agree with you that No 3. is the best, and the last one,  No 7,  I cannot remember for the moment.
Your story about Sibelius and Berg, reminds me of a bon mot about Sibelius’ own first Symphony, namely that it was the best symphony Tchaikowski ever wrote.8
You ask if my likes and dislikes change as I get older: certainly they do.  I could see no point in Beethoven when I was a boy, - and I am still temperamentally allergic to him.  But I am beginning to find out that he is nevertheless a very great man.  I used to enjoy Schumann’s sentimental songs very much when I was young, but I can’t bear them now. Schubert has also gone off the boil as far as I am concerned. But Bach remains!9
I hope very much when we meet at Cheltenham we can have a long talk about all these things.
I am so glad to hear about the cricket.  I never could bear it myself, but I had to play when I was a boy, and one day I was out in the field and thinking about something else, when a ball suddenly hit me hard on the shins.  I awoke from my dreams to enthusiastic cries of  “well fielded sir”, and got a reputation as a cricketer!
Love from us both to you both,


1. i.e. A Vision of Aeroplanes (Catalogue of Works 1956/1).
2. VW much admired The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Otto Nicolai.
3. John Barbirolli; the Partita is Catalogue of Works 1938/5a.
4.  Frank Howes, music critic of The Times.
5. The glories of our blood and state, a choral setting of the dirge from The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses for the armour of Achilles by James Shirley completed in 1883, revised in 1908 and 1914.
6. This passage has as background the lecture given by VW in 17th November 1955 to the Composers Concourse on ‘The teaching of Parry and Stanford’ which had been broadcast on 1st January. It is printed in a shortened version in Heirs and Rebels pp. 94-102 (but misdated to 1957).
7. VW had been an adjudicator when, in 1922, Alexander Mackenzie’s opera The Eve of St John had been turned down for inclusion in the Carnegie scheme for the Publication of British Music.
8. Sibelius had remarked that he thought Schoenberg's best composition was Alban Berg, a story well calculated to amuse VW.
9. This last phrase is hand-written.


Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
Ms Mus. 159, ff.123-124
General notes: 

Typewritten with manuscript addition. This letter reprinted in part in Michael Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, pp.385-6.

Cobbe 687; Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.385-6
Original database number: