Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958) is a paragon of duality: perfect synthesis of old and new, of tradition and innovation, of light and dark. His neo-nationalist compositional style is distinctly and uniquely Vaughan Williamsian, and yet resonates deeply as a symbol of Englishness. His innovative blend of musical modernism is rooted in the past, drawing heavily from the traditions of English choral music and steeped the rustic sonorities of folk music. With a life and career weaved between two world wars, his music can be as festive and joyful as it is dark and tumultuous. Scroll down to discover the sublime sound world of Britain’s finest composer with our selection of the best Vaughan Williams works.
Best Vaughan Williams Works: 10 Essential Pieces
10: In the Fen Country (1907)
One of Vaughan Williams’ earlier compositions, In the Fen Country is a beautiful, evocative orchestral tone-poem, painting the bleak landscape of dense marshland. Despite this being one of his earlier works, the beginnings of his unique compositional style are already evident. The score effortlessly portrays wild open spaces in vivid technicolour and atmospheric orchestration, reminiscent of French impressionism. By 1907 Vaughan Williams had been collecting folk songs for a number of years; the importance of this work is already seen manifest in Fen Country, with touches of modality and shimmering allusions to folk tunes.
9: Dark Pastoral (orch. David Matthews, 2010)
This beautiful piece for orchestra and cello is based on a surviving fragment of Vaughan Williams’ Cello Concerto (1942). The original concerto was never fully completed, and it is thanks to David Matthews, in collaboration with the RVW foundation, that we are able to experience this wonderful, elegiac work as a piece in its own right. In 2010 Dark Pastoral premiered at the BBC London proms, performed by Steven Isserlis, and is now a treasured part of Vaughan Williams’ catalogue.
8: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Vaughan Williams was a master of reincarnation and often drew on the distant past for creative influence. Tallis was an English 16th-century composer and the theme for Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia was originally written for a setting of a Psalm, originally composed in 1567. Vaughan Williams ingeniously reimagines this theme as a piece for string orchestra, yet preserves its intrinsic Renaissance qualities. This fine balance between old and new not only results in one of Vaughan Williams’ best works but truly demonstrates his compositional genius.
7: Pilgrim’s Progress (1951)
Pilgrim’s Progress represents another dichotomy in Vaughan Williams: a self-proclaimed atheist with a deep and abiding interest in Christianity and sacred spirituality. Indeed, he referred to this work as a ‘morality’ rather than an opera: the libretto pairs a complex and compelling score with John Bunyan’s 1678 eponymous allegory, extracts from the Bible, and verse written by Vaughan William’s wife, Ursula. Since the lukewarm reception at its premiere in 1951, Pilgrim’s Progress has divided opinion. However more recent performances have attempted to rehabilitate and modernise the production, earning its place as a masterpiece of 20th century opera.
6: English Folk Song Suite (1924)
Vaughan Williams’ love of folk music pervades every corner of his repertoire; in particular, English Folk Song Suite, one of his best works, is a celebration of folk heritage including songs such as Seventeen Come Sunday, My Bonny Boy and Folk Songs from Somerset. This charming suite was composed for a military band but is widely performed today in its fully-orchestrated form. The reincarnated folk songs dance off this score, alive with heart and soul that characterises so much of Vaughan Williams’ work.
5: Symphony No. 1 ‘Sea Symphony’ (1910)
The nine symphonies of Ralph Vaughan William are all, in their own ways, standout pieces in a prolific portfolio. The first symphony is a thick, glossy, score, jam-packed with the sumptuous, folk-inspired Vaughan Williams idiom we know and love but on an immense scale. The vast performing forces include full orchestra and mass chorus with individual soloists. Written after the composer studied orchestration in Paris with Ravel, the ‘Sea Symphony’ is magnificently orchestrated to emulate the sheer power of the ocean, with a mass of swirling, swelling strings, epic brass and dramatic percussion. The chorus open the first movement spectacularly, exclaiming: “Behold, the sea!”
4: Five Mystical Songs (1911)
The vocal works of Vaughan Williams are always particularly special. Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus and orchestra, are based on sacred poems by George Herbert. Each song has its own character and feel: ‘Easter’ is joyful and exultant, ‘I Got Me Flowers’ has a softer, more ethereal quality, whilst the final movements ‘The Call’ and ‘Antiphon’ have more of a hymnal, celebratory feel to them. Simply mesmerising.
3: Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ (1928)
Again, the historic collides with the contemporary in Vaughan William’s stunning adaption of the famous tune ‘Greensleeves’. Originally written for the opera Sir John in Love, but now performed as a concert piece in its own right, Vaughan Williams revives the style of Tudor polyphony he revered so much alongside the folk tunes ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Lovely Joan’, encased in his signature glistening, vibrant musical style. There’s a peaceful and serene quality to this score, yet it is steeped in a strong, patriotic spirit.
2: Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (1938)
An exquisite, poignant setting of the folk tune ‘Dives and Lazarus’. The sweeping lyricism gently ebbs and flows with sensitive touches of modality and soft, clashes of remote tonalities, building to an eventual outpouring of unrestrained, unbounded emotion. Dives and Lazarus, one of the best Vaughan Williams works, was performed at the composer’s own funeral in 1958 as a tribute to his love of folk song; this makes such a glorious piece feel even more poignant.
1: The Lark Ascending (1914)
Will any piece of music, ever again, come close to capturing an entire nation’s heart as The Lark Ascending? Vaughan Williams’ ‘pastoral romance’ for solo violin and orchestra was voted the greatest piece of music in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame, the world’s biggest poll of classical music tastes, for a record eleventh time in 2021 – with its idyllic, untroubled pastoral quality, melodious violin solo and traces of rustic modality, it’s easy to see why. Although The Lark Ascending was written before the First World War, the premiere was postponed until 1921. By this time, The Lark Ascending had become more than an exquisite piece of neo-nationalistic music: it provided a window into pre-war Britain. Perhaps that is why it resonated, and continues to resonate, with post-war audiences. As Vaughan Williams so famously said: “The art of music above all arts is the expression of the soul of the nation”.
Our recommended recording of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending performed by Nicola Benedetti, featured on her album Vaughan Williams and Tavener, can be bought here.