Ralph Vaughan Williams

English composer (1872–1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958) was a British composer and folksong-collector who, in the early 20th century, played a key part in the forming of a distinctively national style of English classical music.

Statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams (circa 1900)


  • The duty of the words is to say just as much as the music has left unsaid and no more.
  • Art for art's sake has never flourished in England. We are often called inartistic because our art is unconscious. Our drama and poetry, like our laws and our constitution, have evolved by accident while we thought we were doing something else, and so it will be with music. The composer must not shut himself up and think about art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community – if we seek for art we shall not find it.
    • "Who Wants the English Composer?" (1912); cited from Ursula Vaughan Williams RVW (1964) pp. 101-2.
  • Before going any further may we take it that the object of art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties – of that, in fact, which is spiritual? And that the means which we employ to induce this revelation are those very senses and faculties themselves?
    • "The Letter and the Spirit", in the journal Music and Letters, vol. 1 (1920) p. 88.
  • The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation.
    • National Music (1934) p. 123.
  • The business of finding a nation's soul is a long and slow one at the best and a great many prophets must be slain in the course of it. Perhaps when we have slain enough prophets future generations will begin to build their tombs.
    • National Music (1934) p. 129.
  • I don't know whether I like it, but it's what I meant.
  • The audience is requested not to refrain from talking during the overture. Otherwise they will know all the tunes before the opera begins.
    • Note in the score to The Poisoned Kiss (1936).
  • The attitude of foreign to English musicians is unsympathetic, self-opinionated and pedantic. They believe that their tradition is the only one (this is specially true of the Viennese) and that anything that is not in accordance with that tradition is "wrong" and arises from insular ignorance.
    • Letter to Lord Kennet, 1941; cited from Ursula Vaughan Williams RVW (1964) p. 243.
  • Film composing is a splendid discipline, and I recommend a course of it to all composition teachers whose pupils are apt to be dawdling in their ideas, or whose every bar is sacred and must not be cut or altered.
    • "Film Music", The R. C. M. Magazine, February 1944.
  • Film contains potentialities for the combination of all the arts such as Wagner never dreamt of.
    • "Film Music", The R. C. M. Magazine, February 1944.
  • There [is] a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend, which comes to us all in the face of great artistic experiences. I had the same experience when I first heard an English folksong, when I first saw Michelangelo's Day and Night, when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge or had my first sight of New York City – the intuition that I had been there already.
    • "Musical Autobiography" (1950); cited from Ursula Vaughan Williams RVW (1964) p. 30.
  • In the next world, I shan't be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it.
    • Said to Sylvia Townsend Warner two weeks before his death; published in William Maxwell (ed.) The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner (1982) p. 168.
  • It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.
    • Quoted in Michael Kennedy The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams ([1964] 1992) p. 302. He reportedly said this to Roy Douglas regarding whether his Symphony No.6 was meant to be programmatic.
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