Vaughan Williams' interest in the contemporary revival of Elizabethan and Jacobean music can be heard in his first masterpiece, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) for double string orchestra, where passages of mystical tenderness contrast with others of spiritual ardour and exaltation. Similar feelings pervade the Five Mystical Songs (Herbert, 1911) for baritone, chorus and orchestra, but in A London Symphony (1913), the more down-to-earth existence of city life is portrayed in some of the most colourful orchestration Vaughan Williams ever wrote. An attempt in Hugh the Drover (H. Child, 1914) to compose an opera, "written to real English words, with a certain amount of real English music and also a real English subject", was equally colourful if not as successful because of its inadequate libretto, whereas the Romance for violin and orchestra, the Lark Ascending (1914), a meditative, unclouded idyll, is a gem.
Because Vaughan Williams felt duty-bound to enroll for military service during the First World War, seven years separate The Lark Ascending from his next important work, the Pastoral Symphony (1921). This is a bleaker portrait of nature, at times forbidding and austere, characteristics further explored in the oratorio Sancta Civitas (Revelation, 1925) and the suite Flos Campi (1925) for viola, small (wordless) chorus and small orchestra, which opens bimodally. Turning again to the stage, Vaughan Williams drew on the expanded harmonic and melodic resources contained in these works to produce spiritually-numbing portrayals of a woman almost defeated by nature in the opera Riders to the Sea (Vaughan Williams, after Synge, 1932), and of Job almost defeated by Satan in the "Masque for Dancing", Job (1930). Despite the noble strains of the triumphant Galliard of the Sons of the Morning in the latter, it is Satan's music, brutal and angular, that is most memorable, a type also explored in the Piano Concerto (1926-31) and fully developed in the harshly discordant and violent Fourth Symphony (1934).