Vaughan Williams by Eric Saylor; The Captain’s Apprentice: Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Story of a Folk Song by Caroline Davison - review by Gavin Plumley

Gavin Plumley

In Symphony with Modernity

Vaughan Williams


Oxford University Press 339pp £26.99

The Captain’s Apprentice: Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Story of a Folk Song


Chatto & Windus 384pp £20

Leonard Bernstein was no stranger to broadsides. Although he conducted plenty of English music, he couldn’t resist filing it under ‘too much organ voluntary in Lincoln Cathedral, too much coronation in Westminster Abbey, too much lark ascending, too much clodhopping on the fucking village green’. Referring to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s most cherished work, Bernstein was implying that the doyen of Classic FM playlists was the guiltiest among English composers of pushing national clichés. It is precisely this kind of portrayal that the American musicologist Eric Saylor is intent on rejecting, in favour of something ‘far more wide-ranging and complex’.

Making use of previously unavailable documents and exploring topics ‘that may have been awkward or insensitive to raise’ in the past, Saylor’s book is ambitious in its reach. Prime among the author’s hopes is the wish to move beyond the ‘outdated assumption’ that the composer’s ‘musical influences began and ended with English folk song’. He also aims to provide a stronger impression of Vaughan Williams’s early years, which the composer himself was wont to underplay. Saylor seeks to fill in the gaps in his biography, exploring Vaughan Williams’s broad youthful interests to provide the groundwork for a discussion of the mature figure.

It is disappointing, then, to find that the author’s ambitions are not reflected in the book’s scope. Given the five thousand letters recently made available to researchers, why have only 234 pages (not including notes and end matter) been afforded to cover Vaughan Williams’s works – both familiar and

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