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Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958)


Main image of Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958)

English composer and conductor, and the central figure in the renaissance of British serious music in the 20th century. Educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge, he studied at the Royal College of Music, at Cambridge, and later in Paris with Maurice Ravel.

Muir Mathieson invited him to write the first of his eleven film scores, 49th Parallel (d. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1941), which coincided with the start of the British government's wartime policy to use cinema to rouse the nation's spirits. He was pre-eminent among the many big names of concert music who were keen to get involved in this populist cause at such a decisive stage in the conflict, especially where this involved documentary or semi-documentary approaches to the subjects of war, sacrifice and noble effort.

Vaughan Williams' film scores tend to ignore narrative and visual detail, but intensify the drama with through-composed music, which was sometimes written before filming had begun. This was the case with Scott of the Antarctic (d. Charles Frend, 1948), of which Ernest Irving said (1948), "[it is] the function of music to bring to the screen the hidden and spiritual illustration into which the camera... is unable to peer". He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1935.

'Vaughan Williams, the cinema and England', in Jeffrey Richards, Films and British National Identity, 1997
D. James: Scott of the Antarctic, the Film and its Production, 1948
R. Vaughan Williams: 'Film Music', The RCM Magazine, 1944 Vol XL, No 1.

David Burnand, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of 49th Parallel (1941)49th Parallel (1941)

Wartime drama: a Nazi U-boat crew is stranded in Canada

Thumbnail image of Bitter Springs (1950)Bitter Springs (1950)

Confused but interesting drama about the plight of Australian Aborigines

Thumbnail image of Dim Little Island, The (1948)Dim Little Island, The (1948)

Anthology of four meditations on the present state of England

Thumbnail image of England of Elizabeth, The (1957)England of Elizabeth, The (1957)

Lively, colourful documentary evocation of Elizabethan England

Thumbnail image of Scott of the Antarctic (1948)Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

Lavish recreation of Captain Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole

Thumbnail image of Vision of William Blake, The (1958)Vision of William Blake, The (1958)

Short film illustrating Blake's spiritual journey via his books and pictures

Thumbnail image of London Moods (1961)London Moods (1961)

Three musical treatments of images of London

Thumbnail image of Vaughan Williams (1984)Vaughan Williams (1984)

Ken Russell's study of the great composer's nine symphonies

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