Letters from Mrs. Vaughan Williams (2019)
Between the years of 1994-1998, Paul corresponded with the widow of composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here is the story:
I was in my early 20’s when I first encountered the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It began very simply with an introduction to his “Songs of Travel” which resonated with my very soul. From there, I delved into the University of Western Ontario music library where I found substantial recordings of his vocal literature, his choral literature, and finally his symphonic literature. I was hooked.
I found the music of RVW to be entrancing: simultaneously soothing and exciting. I’ll never forget the first time I heard his “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” I was likely a senior in college then and I was listening to it with discerning ears. It was absolutely delightful to the senses. The undulations of the melody and Vaughan Williams’ harmonies colliding in symphony with one another. I recall weeping before I finished listening to the completed work; it was a masterpiece in my mind.
Times were tight in Canada in the ‘90s and I found myself looking elsewhere for employment and a future. A great opportunity opened up for me and I wound up meeting Dr. Jeanine Wagner and Margaret Simmons from Illinois who offered me a scholarship to study in the United States -- an offer that I graciously accepted.
I moved to Illinois in 1993 and my appetite for the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams continued to grow. In spite of teasing about my fascination, I continued to learn and program the works of RVW on recitals and other programs. In spite of being a relative pauper, I bought every book on RVW that I could and read them cover to cover. (It was likely an unhealthy fascination, but it was where I was at the time; there was a kinship there that I understand now more than ever.)
It made sense, therefore, that I should likely study at least one work of Vaughan Williams for my Masters thesis. In the process, I stumbled across the address of Ursula Vaughan Williams on microfiche. (For those under 40, this was Google for old people.)
After some conversation with my advisor, I decided to write to her about the joy I experienced as I listened to the music of her late husband, RVW. And she wrote back! (Sadly, I don’t have this first letter as it has been lost over time -- though I do believe it may still exist.) I continued to write to her. I asked questions that pertained to thinking about his music...and she wrote back with commentary about her thoughts on her husband’s writings.
In 1996, I found the money necessary to make a trip to London and to Paris for a study of music in Europe. I wrote to Mrs. VW and asked if me and my travel companion might meet her for conversation and company while we were there. I recall jumping for joy when I received her letter indicating not only would she be delighted to meet us, but where to meet her and when.
We flew to London during the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. In spite of being broke, we visited several sites in England’s capital: Big Ben, London Bridge, the Tower, and Westminster Abbey. I visited the Abbey with one thought in mind: to visit the final resting place of Ralph Vaughan Williams himself -- in the north choir aisle behind the chancel. Upon arrival, I found the Abbey closed to the public. The choir was rehearsing and, upon inquiry, was completely unavailable. I stuck a conversation with one of the unbudging Abbey security guards and continued to come up empty -- no one would fully enter the Abbey while the choir was in session. I walked away, dumbstruck.
I listened to the choir for several more minutes and approached the guards again. I again asked if there was any way to PLEASE see the final resting place of Vaughan Williams. He said, “Again, you’ll need to come back later today or perhaps tomorrow.” I said, “I’m sorry, but tomorrow I’m leaving for Paris and tonight isn’t an option.”
He retorted, “If seeing Vaughan Williams’ resting place is as big of a deal as you say, why the bloody heck won’t you come back at 6:00 with the rest of the public?”
“Because I’m leaving in a couple of hours to have high tea with Mrs. Vaughan Williams,” I said.
There was stunned silence for several seconds.
“Oh, a name-dropper, are we?!” said the guard as he motioned his arm to the right, ushering us toward the north choir aisle.
Seeing his final resting place in Westminster Abbey was a religious experience within a religious experience. I’d waited years to be in this space and finally, at last, I was being allowed passage to visit someone who had distantly (and yet directly) had touched my career in music. It was a magical moment of reverence -- especially since we were the only three standing in the aisle while the choir sang nearby.
It was already beginning to get dark in London when we set out in a black cab for high tea with Mrs. Vaughan Williams. She lived in a series of tall, connected residences not far from Regent’s Park. We rang the bell when we arrived and an 85 year old Ursula Vaughan Williams came to the door to greet us. After a polite series of greetings, she ushered us to the back of the residence where she already had tea prepped and ready to go: a delightful combination of black tea and cookies.
Mrs. VW had had a stroke several months before our visit and she asked me to carry the tray upstairs to the study. We entered the study which was filled with books and scores and a large bust of RVW himself. I was awestruck, barely containing my excitement.
We had a lovely conversation that lasted quite a while. She asked a lot of questions of us and didn’t speak at length about her husband’s work, but she did talk quite a bit about the classical music scene in London. One of my favorite moments was when she asked me, “What made you so interested in my husband’s music?”
This was my chance! And I began to talk in excited tones about how I became to be such a fan of his works. A couple of minutes later, I stopped to take a breath between sentences; at that moment, she turned to my companion and said “And you dear. What do you do?” This memory still cracks me up to this day! Because we never did circle back to that part of the conversation. I’ve always attributed it to the stroke that she’d had.
A few things still surprised me about our visit. First, how very modestly she was living. The house was simple, part of a series of homes all connected to one another, and about 3 storeys tall. Second, It surprised me a bit, however, that she was an avid smoker of long, brown cigarettes, and so that scent is something that I recall as well. And third, I recall how very kind, warm, funny, and genuine she was. Who invites a graduate student from the U.S. to have high tea with you in your private home? It was something I’ll never forget -- and a memory for which I will be forever grateful.
Though she lived until 2007, I never did hear from Mrs. Vaughan Williams after 1998. Regardless, I was pleased to have had the opportunities I did have to interact with her and to meet her. One of the most important things I learned, however, was that composers (and their families) are receptive to those who reach out to them with questions. And it’s why I continue to reach out and ask questions of my contemporaries to this day -- they are simply chock full of great information and insight.
Click on the links below to view Mrs. Vaughan Williams’ letters from 1994, 1996, and 1998: