Piece on Ralph Vaughan Williams by John Ireland

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In the concluding years of the ‘nineties Vaughan Williams was a student with Stanford during the period when I also had that privilege.  Among our fellow-students were Holst and Dunhill and a little group or coterie resulted, which included the pianist Ev[e]lyn Howard-Jones, also a student.  We were much together, attending regularly Stanford’s bi-weekly orchestral rehearsals with the R.C.M. Orchestra, led at that time by Sam Grimson of the distinguished Grimson family.  In those days there were no gramaphone records and comparatively few orchestral concerts we could attend.
 Our group were together frequently and discussed music voraciously.  We showed each other our compositions with much mutual criticism.  We used to frequent a teashop in High Street Kensington, then known as Wilkins’, where we could sit for hours in animated discussions.  At that time, though Vaughan Williams was by some years the eldest of us, he had not developed his later habit of ex-cathedra assertions, he was, in fact, just “one of us” as the saying goes.  There was no question amongst us of which was the greatest.  We were all humble-minded students eager to learn from Stanford and from each other.  We formed a debating society with regular meetings when one or other of us would read a prepared discourse followed by mutual arguments.  These were not confined to music. I recollect that Vaughan Williams delivered a discourse on Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure”, at that time considered rather a daring if not shocking work.  On one of these occasions I animadverted on Schopenhauer, some of whose less extended works were well known to us all.
 Vaughan Williams, who even then we called V.W., had a somewhat naive sense of humour, his favourite tale or joke was “Why does an oratorio remind you of an elderly Conservative?” Answer being Judas Macabeus.  The interpretation being “Hoary Tory, O, you just mak’ a bee- ‘us” (bee-house).
 When V.W. first married and went to Germany to study with Max Bruch, he was organist of the church of S. Barnabas, South Lambeth.  He persuaded me at the time to undertake his work there for the period of his six months projected absence.  Even in those early days his activities were prodigious, for in addition to the normal work of a church organist and choirmaster, he ran a choral society and an orchestral society in connection with the church.  He instructed me to prepare and produce performances of Mendelssohn’s “Lauda Sion” and Stanford’s “Revenge”.  This was no easy task for me, then a lad in my sixteenth year and quite inexperienced.
 On his return from Germany, V.W. bought or leased what he described as “a small cheap house” on Chelsea Embankment.  The house, a beautiful one, was at the eastern corner of the fine terrace of houses one of which, Queen’s House, was at one time the residence of D.G. Rosetti, the great pre-raphaelite painter and poet.  The house, still painted white, still stands where it did, though the principal books I have read on Chelsea do not disclose the fact that it was once the residence of England’s great and famous composer.  For many years during Vaughan Williams’ subsequent life in Chelsea, he and I remained friends, and continued our musical companionship and mutual advice and criticism.
 In conclusion I have an anecdote which perhaps throws some light on the character of this great figure.  In l905, when I was writing my first Sonata for violin and piano, I showed him the slow movement, then in manuscript.  When I reached the central theme in E minor (in Dorian mode dress) he stopped me and was silent for a minute or two.  Then he said “Play that theme again”.  After another pause he said “Well, that’s odd.  I have used practically the same theme in a song”.  I was rather taken aback and asked him what we should do about this curious coincidence of a musical idea.  After a moment’s thought, V.W. said “Well, we must both have cribbed it from something else, so we had better both leave it as it is nobody will notice it”.  And so far as I know, nobody ever has!

1. This was published with some amendment in the Musical Times for October 1958 (pp 535-6).


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