Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Listeners to Radio 3 or Classic FM will be aware that the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ birth is being celebrated this year. He was a prolific composer responsible for nine symphonies and a host of other works across several genres. As one of the 20th century’s leading composers he contributed four items to the 1953 Coronation Service, two of which were especially composed.

What is not so well-known, however, is that over a period of some ten years, he travelled widely throughout the English countryside taking down the words and music of over 800 folk songs. These songs had been passed down the generations via an oral tradition. If RVW, together with one or two others, had not taken this initiative in the early years of the last century, they may have gradually faded from memory and been lost for ever.

In 1904 RVW was approached by the liturgist Revd. Percy Dearmer who asked him to become the musical editor of a proposed new hymn book. As an agnostic, RVW seemed an unlikely choice, but with Dearmer, he shared a dislike of many of the sentimental Victorian hymns and their tunes. He accepted the challenge and contributes four bold new tunes, two of which (those for Come down, O love divine and For all the Saints) are still used regularly. RVW also adapted folk tunes for use with several other hymns, including O little town of Bethlehem and He who would valiant be.

The English hymnal, the first truly liturgical hymn book, was published in 1906 and is the direct ancestor of the main hymn book in use at St Mary’s today.

👤 John Anson