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Divided into three main sections – 1) ‘Who wants the English composer?’: forging a path, 1890-1925; 2) Works by genre; 3) Activism, reception and influence – this latest Cambridge Guide incorporates excellent contributions by 13 writers. Much of the book is concerned with early, minor or less familiar works: areas of particular value to the VW specialist, but my own interest in the neglected works – including Riders to the Sea, An Oxford Elegy and Sir John in Love – has definitely been sharpened. In any case it is tremendously useful to have thorough surveys of the music for film and radio, the chamber music, the songs and VW’s writings. Of course one is powerfully reminded of VW’s generosity of spirit, whether encouraging young composers, attending avant-garde premieres, committing his time to amateur ventures, his enlistment during world war one, and his tireless work on behalf of folksong and The English Hymnal.

All the essays here are valuable and often insightful, but I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled ‘Fluctuations in the response to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ by Michael Kennedy – still writing as authoritatively and warmly as ever. It is good to learn that even as early as the 1950s VW’s music was being frequently performed in the USA, that the sixth symphony was performed 100 times in just over two years (1948-50), and that the eighth was performed in eight European cities within six months of its premiere. Byron Adams, in his essay ‘VW’s musical apprenticeship’, regards Calvocoressi’s suggestion that he should study with Ravel as ‘outlandish’ but neatly describes this period as ‘a little French Polish’.

In the final chapter Peter Maxwell Davies, Piers Hellawell, Nicola LeFanu and Anthony Payne are interviewed. Payne reminds us that Warlock’s famous ‘cow looking over a gate’ remark (re the third symphony) was followed by ‘but after all, it’s a very great work’. Kennedy omits to mention this in his chapter.

This is a really fine book about a great composer and a great man.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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