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University of Cambridge
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams was born to a well-to-do family with strong moral views and a progressive social outlook. Throughout his life he sought to be of service to his fellow citizens, and believed in making music as available as possible to everybody. He wrote many works for amateur and student performance. He was musically a late developer, not finding his true voice until his late thirties; his studies in 19071908 with the French composer Maurice Ravel helped him clarify the textures of his music and free it from Teutonic influences.

In 1878, at the age of five, Vaughan Williams began receiving piano lessons from his aunt, Sophy Wedgwood. He displayed signs of musical talent early on, composing his first piece of music, a four-bar piano piece called "The Robin's Nest", in the same year. He did not greatly like the piano, and was pleased to begin violin lessons the following year. In 1880, when he was eight, he took a correspondence course in music from Edinburgh University and passed the associated examinations.

During his time at Cambridge Vaughan Williams continued his weekly lessons with Parry, and studied composition with Charles Wood and organ with Alan Gray. He graduated as Bachelor of Music in 1894 and Bachelor of Arts the following year. After leaving the university he returned to complete his training at the RCM. Parry had by then succeeded Sir George Grove as director of the college, and Vaughan Williams's new professor of composition was Charles Villiers Stanford. Relations between teacher and student were affectionate but stormy. Stanford, who had been adventurous in his younger days, had grown deeply conservative; he clashed vigorously with his modern-minded pupil. Vaughan Williams had no wish to follow in the traditions of Stanford's idols, Brahms and Wagner, and he stood up to his teacher as few students dared to do. Beneath Stanford's bluster lay a recognition of Vaughan Williams's talent and a desire to help the young man correct his opaque orchestration and extreme predilection for modal music.

During the war Vaughan Williams stopped writing music, and after returning to civilian life he took some time before feeling ready to compose new works. He revised some earlier pieces, and turned his attention to other musical activities. In 1919 he accepted an invitation from Hugh Allen, who had succeeded Parry as director, to teach composition at the RCM; he remained on the faculty of the college for the next twenty years. In 1921 he succeeded Allen as conductor of the Bach Choir, London. It was not until 1922 that he produced a major new composition, A Pastoral Symphony; the work was given its first performance in London in May conducted by Adrian Boult and its American premiere in New York in December conducted by the composer.

The last of the first group is A Pastoral Symphony (1921). The first three movements are for orchestra alone; a wordless solo soprano or tenor voice is added in the finale. Despite the title the symphony draws little on the folk-songs beloved of the composer, and the pastoral landscape evoked is not a tranquil English scene, but the French countryside ravaged by war. Some English musicians who had not fought in the First World War misunderstood the work and heard only the slow tempi and quiet tone, failing to notice the character of a requiem in the music and mistaking the piece for a rustic idyll. Kennedy comments that it was not until after the Second World War that "the spectral 'Last Post' in the second movement and the girl's lamenting voice in the finale" were widely noticed and understood.

Hugh the Drover, or Love in the Stocks (completed 1919, premiere 1924) has a libretto, by the writer and theatre critic Harold Child, which was described by The Stage as "replete with folksy, Cotswold village archetypes". In the view of the critic Richard Traubner the piece is a cross between traditional ballad opera and the works of Puccini and Ravel, "with rhapsodic results." The score uses genuine and pastiche folk songs but ends with a passionate love duet that Traubner considers has few equals in English opera. Its first performance was by students at the Royal College of Music, and the work is rarely staged by major professional companies.

Composers of the generation after Vaughan Williams reacted against his style, which became unfashionable in influential musical circles in the 1960s; diatonic and melodic music such as his was neglected in favour of atonal and other modernist compositions. In the 21st century this neglect has been reversed. In the fiftieth anniversary year of his death two contrasting documentary films were released: Tony Palmer's O Thou Transcendent: The Life of Vaughan Williams and John Bridcut's The Passions of Vaughan Williams. British audiences were prompted to reappraise the composer. The popularity of his most accessible works, particularly the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending increased, but a wide public also became aware of what a reviewer of Bridcut's film called "a genius driven by emotion". Among the 21st-century musicians who have acknowledged Vaughan Williams's influence on their development are John Adams, PJ Harvey, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Anthony Payne, Wayne Shorter, Neil Tennant and Mark-Anthony Turnage.