The Spirit of Christmas
10th December 2016
St. Edmund’s Church, Shipston-on-Stour
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, but for his whole life, from the age of about three, he lived in or around London. Although he was very much involved with rural folk music, he saw himself as a city boy.
The Vaughan Williamses were eminent lawyers, and his mother was sister of Charles Darwin, marrying into the Wedgwood family. Wealthy and cultured, they sent Ralph to Charterhouse, from whence he continued to Trinity College Cambridge via the Royal College of Music. Composing did not come easily to him, so he returned to the RCM to study with Parry, Wood and Stanford, and then went on to study with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. It was while he was studying with Ravel that he began composing the first of the Five Mystical Songs.
His slow-burn development delayed his arrival as the leading British composer of his generation. He was consciously an English composer with strong roots in English folk music. He was at pains never to be elitist, an ideal he shared with his friend Gustav Holst.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs are settings of poems by the 17th century metaphysical poet, George Herbert. They were composed over five years, starting in 1906, finally completed for performance at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, on 14th September 1911.