Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Michael Kennedy

Letter No.: 
August 18th 1956.

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

My dear Michael,

I have much to thank you for. Firstly for the book.1 I have tried several rounds with Mr Wilson, and have bitten the dust each time up to the present.  But I am going to try one more bout, bloody but unbowed! He is apparently writing about existentialism, and he never explains what it is, and as I do not know, I feel I am fighting with one hand tied behind my back.  At present the book seems to me almost entirely scissors and paste, with unexplained allusions to novels, most of which I do not know, and most of which, judging from the quotations, I do not want to know.  But there! I am an old fogey, and it has apparently been much admired though Edith Sitwell’s praise is blame indeed.
Secondly, thank you for your lucid explanation of the tone rows.  If that is really all there is to it, it seems to me the most astonishing bit of mechanical pedantry which has ever been dignified by the name of art.  I think I must try a tone row myself and see what happens.  But apparently one must not use any succession of notes which sounds agreeable to the cultivated ear.  I remember Charles Wood giving a lesson to a young modern at the R.C.M.2 who thought he was going to show the old dry-as-dust how to do it.  Wood looked at his work and said, “It’s all right, but it seems to me rather tame, why didn’t you do something more like this?” & sat down at the piano and played some outrageous stuff that the poor young man had never even dreamt of.
Evelyn3 very kindly brought a record of the new symph.4  Some of it seems a muddle to me, but then most records do, and both Ursula and Gil5 said it was splendid.
Poor Eslyn6 and her tooth. Give her our love and tell her that I am sure it was a sweet tooth.


1. Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1956), which Kennedy had given to VW to test his reaction.
2. Royal College of Music
3. Evelyn Barbirolli.
4. Symphony No. 8 (Catalogue of Works 1955/3).
5. Sir Gilmour Jenkins.
6. Eslyn Kennedy, wife of Michael.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 159, f.133
General notes: 

Typewritten, signed. This letter reprinted in part in Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, pp. 386-7.

Cobbe 690; Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, pp. 386-7
Original database number: