An English composer, conductor, writer and folksong collector, Ralph Vaughan Williams succeeded Elgar as the leading British composer of his generation. Of central importance to his output is a series of nine highly individual symphonies, interspersed with large-scale choral and orchestral works, operas, concertos and some chamber music. His melodic writing, when influenced by his enthusiasm for folksong, imparts a nationalist flavour to several of his works, although others are more cosmopolitan in nature, sharing to a certain extent in the development of modernism. No type of music making, however humble, was shunned by Vaughan Williams; he was equally at home composing for local musicians as for the cognoscenti. His involvement with the community found expression in his conductorship of the Leith Hill Festival (Dorking) during the period 1905-53. Following the award of an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford (1919), he received many other official honours, including the Order of Merit (1935), although he declined a knighthood.
Born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, Vaughan Williams, a vicar's son with distinguished forebears on both sides of his family, lived for most of his life in or near Dorking, Surrey, and in London. He was slow to develop musically, and two years at the Royal College of Music, London (1890-2), led to three at Trinity College, Cambridge (1892-5), before he returned to the Royal College - his composition teachers were Parry, Charles Wood and Stanford. At the Royal College in 1895 he met and befriended Holst, and on "field days", which were held regularly until Holst's death, they would discuss the progress of each other's compositions. Further encouragement was provided by lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin (during 1897 on his honeymoon with his first wife, Adeline Fisher), but more significant for the development of his style was a deepening interest in folksong, culminating in the collection of more than 800 examples beginning with "Bushes and Briars" in 1903. The adaptation of folk songs as hymns was an important part of his task as music editor of the English Hymnal (1904-6), as well as writing new tunes himself - for instance, Sine nomine ("For all the saints") and Down Ampney ("Come down, O Love Divine") - and subsequently he made many folksong arrangements. The first works to include folksongs were the three Norfolk Rhapsodies (1905-6), but a more integrated use of a folksong-influenced idiom comes in three pieces dating from 1908-9, the String Quartet in G minor, the song cycle On Wenlock Edge for tenor and piano quintet, and the incidental music to The Wasps (Aristophanes). All three also exhibit evidence of Vaughan Williams' lessons in instrumentation with Ravel (1908). Bestriding this early period and crowning it is Vaughan Williams' First Symphony, A Sea Symphony (Whitman, 1903-9) for soloists, chorus and orchestra, a visionary exploration of humanity's place in the universe.