Ursula Vaughan Williams

Poet and wife of the composer

Thursday 25 October 2007 00:00

Ursula Lock, writer and poet: born Valletta, Malta 15 March 1911; married 1933 J.M.J. Forrester Wood (died 1942), 1953 Ralph Vaughan Williams (died 1958); died London 23 October 2007.

Ursula Vaughan Williams was a complicated person. Her father and her first husband were soldiers – so her early years were conventional and there was apparently a Betjemanesque touch of "jolly hockey sticks" about her. Yet her own psyche was creative, poetic; and she was to marry the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, to write verses for him and single-mindedly to cherish him.

Born in Malta in 1911, she was the daughter of Maj-Gen Sir Robert Lock. At the age of 22 she married J.M.J. Forrester Wood who, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, was killed in 1942. Until that time her life was therefore a nomadic affair and a surprising preparation for the years of fulfilment which began when she met Ralph Vaughan Williams early in 1938.

She had been "bowled over" by his ballet, Job, while a student at the Old Vic, and had sent him a scenario of her own. "VW" was not much impressed, but he forwarded it to Douglas Kennedy, of the English Folk Dance Society. An unsatisfactory tripartite correspondence followed and it was characteristic of Ursula that she asked Kennedy to suggest that VW should take her out to lunch. This he did and things must have gone well, for they went on to see a Walt Disney Silly Symphony and "ended up sitting by the Serpentine".

At the time VW had been married to Adeline Fisher since 1897. She was now 65 and already much handicapped by arthritis. She was to die in 1951 and Ursula, who married Ralph in 1953, later recorded her "early beauty, her lively mind, her austere discipline, her tenderness and edged wit". The relationship of the two women who, in whatever sense, shared Ralph for 13 years, was civilised, apparently affectionate: when Ursula was widowed in 1942, Ralph took her to his home in Dorking, where Adeline made her welcome.

Ursula's own interests were not really musical; they were literary. An avid reader, as was Ralph, she was also a poet and in 1953 he set her "Silence and Music" for four-part chorus. Her ballet scenario, which in 1938 had been the occasion of their first meeting, was adapted and Spenser's Epithalamion newly chosen as its subject. With the title The Bridal Day it was later recorded for television – but the recording embarrassed both writer and composer. More successful were The Sons of Light (1950), "our joint cantata", and Song for a Spring Festival, a unison piece written for the use of Leith Hill Choirs. There are also interpolations by Ursula in Ralph's The Pilgrim's Progress (1921-49, revised 1951-52), whose performance at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1992 gave her special pleasure.

R.V.W., Ursula's biography of Ralph, published in 1964, is a document of great value – but it tells us almost nothing about her feelings for him, or his for her. Those who knew her best are clear, though, that she adored him and that when he died in 1958 the book became an imperative obligation and an act of piety.

But it would be for her own creative writing that she would no doubt have liked best to be remembered. Her novels – among them Set to Partners (1968) and The Yellow Dress (1984) – are surprisingly conventional, coming, as they do, from a woman who at lunch one day responded to the proposition that "All women are either mothers or tarts", with, "Well, I'm a tart." Some, but not all, of this sharpness found its way into her librettos, of which The Sofa (1957), with Elizabeth Maconchy, was perhaps the most effective. Other collaborations were with Malcolm Williamson, David Barlow and Charles Camilleri; none, sadly, made much of a mark.

She was at her best in verse, of which she published at least six volumes, the latest being Aspects (1984). Often personal, they employ a rich vocabulary that reflects her love of nature and her extensive reading. One, "No Hand in the Night", suggests that she never really got over Ralph's death. But she filled her life with useful activity – and with expeditions. "I love gadding about," she said, and no year passed without a journey overseas. Even after a fairly severe stroke in 1995 she holidayed in Rhodes. In 2002 – astonishingly – she attended a Vaughan Williams festival in Brisbane. There were those who wondered if she would survive the journey, but they were utterly confounded.

Her memory will probably be perpetuated not in her writing but in her work for others. She served for 33 years on the executive committee of the Musicians Benevolent Fund – "the Musben" – and for 15 years on its Homes and Cases Committee, to which she brought compassion and a refreshing candour. From 1956 until her death she concerned herself devotedly with the RVW Trust. This had been established to promote the music of living British composers and when, in 1983, Ralph's performing rights reverted to her personally, she reassigned them to the trust, thus making available very large sums of money. These funds – sometimes rather idiosyncratically, even partially, distributed to individuals – nevertheless handsomely subsidised an impressive range of corporate musical enterprises. It is regrettable that her disinterested generosity was never publicly acknowledged.

Till the end of her days Ursula Vaughan Williams relished activity, friends young and old, new enthusiasms. These, if diverse – Stefan Zweig, a new larder in her welcoming Regent's Park home, the adoption of a Pyrenean wolf – were always whole-hearted. But Ralph remained her lodestar.

Robert Ponsonby

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