A long lifetime's journey toward an unknown region

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As the Barbican begins to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bayan Northcott wonders what kind of composer he really was.

Sometime in the winter of 1947-1948, scribbling a typically self- deprecating autobiographical sketch for a proposed book on his music, Ralph Vaughan Williams suddenly sighed: "I have struggled all my life to conquer amateurish technique and now that perhaps I have mastered it, it seems too late to use it." Since the 75-year-old composer was just about to loose upon the world his fearsome Sixth Symphony, with three further symphonies, his opera The Pilgrim's Progress, the Christmas cantata Hodie and all the other multi-coloured sins of his old age still to follow, the implication that it was too late might be taken as a tease. But there have always been others to criticise his technique as amateurish. And when he wrote of struggling all his life, it was no less than the truth.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of a composer in history whose apprenticeship was so prolonged. It was clearly not that he lacked determination or at least some talent - starting on the violin at six, pursuing a correspondence course in music theory at eight and giving a concert of his compositions at Charterhouse School when he was 16. At 18 he began the first of two stints at the Royal College of Music, separated by reading music at Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1892 and 1895.

On his return to the RCM, he submitted to that most demanding of composition teachers, Stanford, and encountered his fellow student Holst, upon whose keen-eared professionalism he was to rely in vetting his scores for almost 40 years. And still he felt under-prepared, travelling to Berlin over the winter of 1897/8 to sit at the feet of Max Bruch. Meanwhile, he worked up his academic techniques to Mus D level in 1901. And in 1907, already aged 35 yet convinced his music remained "lumpy and stodgy", he took himself off for three months to Ravel in Paris, who taught him "how to orchestrate in points of colour rather than lines" and advised him to compose at the piano - which Bruch had strictly discouraged.

At last, the earliest of his large-scale works which still live in the repertory were beginning to appear, including the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), A London Symphony (1912-13) and The Lark Ascending (1914). Yet all three had to be substantially revised later, and it was not until after the hiatus of the First World War - in which his service under heavy gunfire probably caused the increasing deafness of his latter years - that he seems really to have begun systematically developing his most idiosyncratic discoveries in such scores as the Mass in G Minor (1921) and the Pastoral Symphony (1922). And by then he was 50.

The contrast with the dazzling professionalism of the largely self-taught Elgar could not be more striking - for by this stage Vaughan Williams was, on the face of it, a highly experienced composer. Not only had he passed through the hands of some of the leading teachers of his time - and he had unsuccessfully sought lessons with Elgar too - but he had composed and participated in the trying-out of a vast quantity music, much of it subsequently withdrawn or as yet unpublished. If his mature work still harboured an element of awkwardness, it could only mean that something deep in his musical personality resisted the very idea of professionalism.

In fact, during his most active teaching years at the RCM between the wars, this bias was to express itself in a rather forceful upholding of heartfelt values of amateur music-making as against the imputed emptiness of professional virtuosity. This tended to come with praise for certain English contemporaries as true modernists - because most in touch with the realities of life - as opposed to such Continental innovators as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, whom Vaughan Williams considered merely mannerists. This was hardly an attitude likely to enthuse such a professionally aspiring and internationally minded student as Britten. Indeed, on 25 September 1936, the Norwich and Norfolk Triennial Festival unwittingly staged what might be considered a symbolic confrontation between the two musical viewpoints. Before lunch, Vaughan Williams conducted the first performance of his rumbustious suite for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Five Tudor Portraits, some of it evidently rude enough in words and music to outrage more stuffy elements in the audience as it delighted the rest. Britten, who had recently spent an evening with his friend Lennox Berkeley guffawing over the "amateurishness and clumsiness" of Vaughan Williams's new Fourth Symphony, and who considered him an incompetent conductor, was prepared to concede the Five Tudor Portraits had had "a very successful show". After lunch, he went on to conduct the premiere of his own symphonic song cycle, Our Hunting Fathers, the most edgily brilliant and fiercely premonitory of all his early works. Despite the general discomfiture, Vaughan Williams came round to the back afterwards and continued to follow the younger man's work for the rest of his life. Britten was not to prove so generous, programming comparatively little Vaughan Williams at successive Aldeburgh Festivals.

Not, of course, that he was oblivious of the older man's example in arranging folksongs, constructing large vocal works on the anthology principle, or writing for amateurs and children. But, in valuing amateur music-making for what he called its "unstrained quality", Britten evidently regarded it as a refuge from the pressures of professionalism which, partly out of his own nature and upbringing, partly out of the business basis of modern musical life, he appears to have conceived as overwhelmingly competitive. One senses about his musical personality a constant urge to do more and to do it better than any of his contemporaries. And although one could hardly call him a self-expressive composer after the late-Romantic tradition of an Elgar, it is striking how many of his major works seem to turn upon problems and preoccupations of his own psychology.

Vaughan Williams, on the other hand, though he might utter the odd riposte about Mahler being "a tolerable imitation of a composer" or whatever, seems to have had no fundamental concern for artistic competition whatever. For him, music was rather a means in the innately human search for what he called "ultimate realities"; and since these realities lay, in a certain sense, "beyond" the notes, it followed that technical perfection was of lesser concern in itself. When critics towards the end of his life began to carp at the "unhistorical" performances he led of his beloved Bach, Vaughan Williams roundly declared that what he sought to keep his performers and listeners in touch with were those musical and spiritual truths of Bach that transcended his historical time. Such a view of the composer- performer as a medium could, of course, have risked inflation into a sort of priesthood. What saved Vaughan Williams from any such temptation was the profound ambivalence of his beliefs. He has been called a Christian Agnostic; his output is full of sacred projects and numinous intimations, yet it is by no means certain that he ever shifted fundamentally from the position of the liberal young man who shocked his fellow undergraduate Bertrand Russell with his atheism.

Out of his technical virtuosity, Britten could doubtless do far more than Vaughan Williams, and his work is constantly braced by his profoundly personal immersion in the problems of innocence and experience. Yet Vaughan Williams's apprehension of the visionary was quite outside Britten's range and comes over to us with an equally powerful supra-personal tension in its constant interplay of awe and doubt.

Does this suggest a final paradox? As Oliver Neighbour pointed out in an obituary article in 1958, most technically limited composers tend to remain miniaturists, yet Vaughan Williams was generally at his best on the largest scale - a propensity Neighbour attributed to his systematic evolution of his primary gift for sustained "stanzaic" melody. Is Vaughan Williams's construction of a substantial sonata movement at the outset of the Pastoral Symphony virtually without recourse to traditional methods of argument and contrast not, in its way, a rather remarkable technical achievement? Would one really want to shift or alter a single note of the radiant texture that suffuses the final pages of the Fifth Symphony? Maybe, for his own purposes, Vaughan Williams achieved a more complete, more professional mastery than he, or we, knew.

`Vaughan Williams: Vision of Albion', a celebration of the composer's 125th anniversary, continues in London and Birmingham to 30 Nov. Next event: a concert performance of the Falstaffian opera `Sir John in Love' 3.30pm Sun 12 Oct, Barbican, London EC1 (0171-638 8891)