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12 October 2020

Ralph Vaughan Williams in the Boosey & Hawkes Archive

It was with characteristic self-deprecation that Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) – whose birthday is today, 12th October – reacted to Boosey & Hawkes’ proposed republication of two pieces that he had written 30 years before: [1] ‘These youthful indiscretions were a great shock to me’, he wrote. [2]’.

The ‘Two Old Airs’, arrangements of German folk-melodies for voice and piano, were now rather too old for the composer’s liking.  They dated from the early 1900s, about the time of his involvement in the English folk-song revival, and before his studies with Maurice Ravel were to lend his music the distinctive textures he wryly called ‘French polish’. By 1933, the time of this letter, his style had undergone considerable development — this was the discordant era of the furious Fourth Symphony (Add MS 50140) and ‘Job: A Masque for Dancing’ (Add MS 54326) — so the composer’s opinion of the early pieces was rather lower than Leslie Boosey’s (1887–1979), and he was anxious that they should not be mistaken for new work.  ‘I am not very proud of them’, was Vaughan Williams’s verdict; ‘If you do decide to issue them I must insist that the date of composition must be printed on the copy’. [3]  Boosey agreed, and the songs were re-issued later that year.

Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey regarding the re-issue of another previously-published work
Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams (in the hand of his wife Adeline, signed by Ralph) to Leslie Boosey, probably 13 August 1933, regarding the re-issue of another previously-published work: ‘Rondel’, composed in 1896: ‘I have no objection to your issuing the songs if, as I say, the date of composition is printed on the copies. […] There is nothing particularly wrong with them technically – they are only, to me, rather characterless’. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/8. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

Boosey & Hawkes Ltd. were not the main publishers of Vaughan Williams's music, their rights being mainly in his early chamber works, but their archive (MS Mus. 1813) nevertheless holds a number of his letters.  Many, like the above, concern mainly formalities: rights, reprints or new arrangements of works for different instruments.  (This kind of correspondence was continued after the composer’s death by his widow Ursula).  Other exchanges, however, shed interesting light on both Vaughan Williams’s life and the publisher’s role in the musical world.  In May 1938, for instance, Vaughan Williams wrote to Leslie Boosey with an unusual request:

Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 16 May 1938
Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 16 May 1938. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/219/8. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

Can you help me with some advice — I have been asked to arrange the music for a pageant — one scene is a garden party in 1900 — Could you find out from your records what were the popular songs about 1895 (I had better ante-date it a bit)

— (1) what a military band at a party would be likely to be playing?

— (2) what a young lady would be likely to sing when asked for a song with piano accomp[animent]?

— It will be very kind of you if you can help me in this [4]

Vaughan Williams would surely have had a fairly good idea of these things himself, but evidently wished to be sure of historical accuracy.   The pageant in question, a collaborative effort between several composers entitled 'England's Pleasant Land' (Add MS 57290-57291) was performed two months later at Milton Court near Dorking, with Vaughan Williams conducting. [5]  It depicted the phemonena old and new that have threatened the peace of the English countryside and the freedom of its people: land enclosures, industrialisation and wanton urban growth.  Interestingly, some of the themes Vaughan Williams composed for this pageant later reappeared, in transfigured form, in the much-loved Fifth Symphony (1943) (Add MS 50371-50372) whose serenity was to bring such peace and consolation to war-battered Britain.

Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 31 October 1940
Letter from Vaughan Williams (in the hand of his wife Adeline, signed by Ralph) to Leslie Boosey, 31 October 1940. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/6. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

Vaughan Williams's involvement in the war effort (in both World Wars) is well-known.  One form his service took during the Second was his chairmanship of a board which sought to aid foreign-born musicians interned in Britain as 'Enemy Aliens'.  The policy of internment, though precautionary in intention, inevitably resulted in the imprisonment of innocent people, many of whom had moved to Britain precisely in fear or defiance of Nazism.  Several times Vaughan Williams sent lists of names to Leslie Boosey, asking if he knew them well enough to be able to attest to their character.  The favour was to be repaid when the same board helped to secure the release of three of Boosey's own staff — Erwin Stein, Alfred Kalmus and Ernst Roth — after they were interned in July 1940.  (For more about this tale, see this blog [https://blogs.bl.uk/music/2020/05/ernst-roth-and-the-business-of-music.html]).

Copy letter from Leslie Boosey to Ralph Vaughan Williams, 11 October 1940
Copy letter from Leslie Boosey to Ralph Vaughan Williams, 11 October 1940. ‘I am afraid there are some very stupid people in charge of [affairs] here today’. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/6. © Boosey & Hawkes. Reproduced by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes Ltd.

A final category of Vaughan Williams’s correspondence consists of his letters of recommendation in support of younger or less prominent composers and musicians.   In July 1938 he wrote to Boosey ‘to introduce to you Mr. William Cole — a composer of talent and a first rate organist’. [6]  He did the same for the composer Franz Reizenstein (1911–1986), whom he introduced as his ‘friend and ex-pupil’ — adding, ‘though indeed there was nothing he needed to learn from me’. [7]  Reizenstein, being German by birth, was among those later interned and for whose release Vaughan Williams was to intervene. [8]

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ letter of introduction for Franz Reizenstein, sent to Leslie Boosey, 9 July 1937
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ letter of introduction for Franz Reizenstein, sent to Leslie Boosey, 9 July 1937. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/8. ©  The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

Letters like these show both composer and publisher working quietly behind the scenes for the flourishing of the musical world.  The tone of the correspondence also reveals the esteem in which each held the other.  Yet it would only have embarrassed Vaughan Williams had Leslie Boosey told him directly what he had written to the Norwegian composer Sverre Hagerrup Bull (1892–1976): 'RVW is our greatest living Composer, and probably the best purely English composer we have ever had'.

Full transcriptions of the letters quoted in this article can be found on the website ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, http://vaughanwilliams.uk.

References

[1] Editorial comment, ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 6 August 1933, letter number VWL5061<http://vaughanwilliams.uk/letter/vwl5061>, retrieved 18 July 2020.

[2] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 6 August 1933.  Full text transcribed at ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, letter number VWL5061<http://vaughanwilliams.uk/letter/vwl5061>, retrieved 18 July 2020.

[3] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 6 August 1933. 

[4] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 16 May 1938.  British Library, MS Mus. 1813/2/1/219/8.

[5] Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘England’s Pleasant Land’, The Redress of the Past, <http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1061/> , retrieved 28 August 2020.

[6] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 3 July 1938.  British Library, MS Mus. 1813/2/1/212/6.

[7] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 9 July 1937.  British Library, MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/8. 

[8] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to the Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, 22 October 1940.  Full text transcribed at ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, letter number VWL 4969, <http://vaughanwilliams.uk/letter/vwl4969>, retrieved 28 August 2020.

Dominic Newman, Manuscripts Cataloguer

 

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