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A meaty new life of Vaughan Williams has been overdue and Keith Alldritt’s study can be recommended to any devotee. Alldritt administers the skills of an experienced biographer (honed, for example, on Churchill and Yeats) combined with a passion for music. The book’s title references VW’s intriguing social/political motivations and aspects of his ‘Englishness’, including the support offered to his country in whatever time of war. But there’s massively more to explore.

Does the book deliver its promised fuller picture of VW than ever before? Possibly, in the sense that Alldritt assembles widely disparate material in one place. Yet there could be a sharper, keener edge to his analysis and assessment of man and music. For example, there are no truly convincing insights into why this highly gregarious individual was so unwilling to talk about his music or himself. And there must be more to say about the way VW managed, or mismanaged, the triangle created once Ursula Wood (the second mrs VW) entered the orbit of his first marriage.

There are errors and imprecisions, some of which don’t matter so very much (eg Parry wrote an elegy not a requiem for Brahms). But I’m left puzzled when, for example, VW swiftly morphs from determined atheism to agnosticism without explanation of this key change of mindset, with clear implications for his musical output. Mistake or terminological inexactitude? No detail either on how, when VW returned to the Western Front in 1918, he witnessed elements of one the bloodiest phases of the conflict. Alongside VW’s more familiar experiences with the army medical corps in 1916, this is significant evidence when examining much post great War music.

Talking of war-influenced works, Alldritt perpetuates the myth that VW’s Pastoral Symphony was poorly received. There’s much evidence to the contrary. Yes, for example, Philip Heseltine was reported (as stated here) to have likened the work to ‘a cow looking over a gate’, but merely jokingly, while saying how much he admired it, an admiration which only grew. When will that falsehood ever get stamped out?

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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