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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Sunday, September 28, 2008
    The atheist hymnwriter and his vision of something beyond
    Fascinating to read in this month's Fortean Times, David Sutton's article about the life and work of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Sutton champions Vaughan Williams as being far from a nostalgic composer of 'cow-pat music', far more 'a musical mystic - a deeply feeling, and often deeply divided, visionary in the eccentric British anti-tradition that embraces Blake and Palmer, Arthur Machen and John Cowper Powys, the British Neo-Romantics of the interwar years, the new antiquarianism of John Mitchell or Julian Cope, and the fantastic cinema of Powell and Pressburger.'

    Any member of this thrilling list is bound to be a wonderfully complex character, and the Fortean Times feature illuminates one of the fascinating contradictions in the man - and in our culture. Vaughan Williams edited The English Hymnal and The Oxford Book of Carols and composed some of the nation's favourite hymns, For all the Saints and Come Down O Love Divine among them. But for much of his life, Sutton writes, Vaughan Williams 'proclaimed himself a staunch atheist'. So why did he contribute so much great music to a church to which he never belonged?

    Sutton finds clues in Vaughan Williams' appreciation of the church's role in 'the old ways of the country' which fascinated him and inspired his deep interest in folk music; and 'the link between music and death - and religion in the form of the tolling church bell - is just as important, and runs through all of his output'. The article explores these themes in Vaughan Williams' work - and the recurring motif of the soul's journey, 'an image of a universal quest for a "vision of something beyond"' which drew him to Wagner, Whitman and the Blake who strove with that struggling biblical character Job. Clearly for Vaughan Williams it was music which held the key to that 'something beyond'.

    "In the next world I shan't be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it," Vaughan Williams once said. David Sutton concludes that 'the famous lark's airborne arabesques' were not 'just a musical representation of some carefree bird flying over the English countryside; the solo violin, in its ascent, is too yearning and sounds too much like the harder-won, cadenza-like solo at the heart of the suffering Job.'

    Fascinating stuff. And the Archbishop of Canterbury is encouraging churches all over the world to sing Vaughan Williams' hymns on 12 October, the anniversary of his birthday. Now that's what I call a good theme for a Back to Church Sunday.

    Pic from www.singers.com