A Review by PAUL COMBEN
Ralph Vaughan Williams as a young man, about 25
AS THE zealous multi-racialist will know, the insidious evils of nationalism and racialism can manifest themselves in the most unlikely places - in a child's storybook for example, or in the untrained utterances of the child itself, or maybe in the child-like brain of a multi-racialist caught off guard... or then again they might be found lurking in great literature, in the poems and plays of the ancients, and even, horror of horrors, in the recently republished essays and letters of the outstanding English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
To be fair, I cannot claim credit for uncovering the evil myself, having never made a successful effort (or to be more precise, having never made any effort at all) to purge and banish from my being those instincts of blood, belonging and love of kind with which I was born. Credit where credit is due, I was in fact put on the scent by way of a recent review of said book in the Daily Telegraph, wherein the reviewer expressed a little concern at the ease with which words such as race, nationalism and patriotism slipped from the author's pen and into his paragraphs.
For some nationalists perhaps, the simple fact that certain sections of the Establishment do not like a given book is a good enough reason in itself to go out and order it. I would prefer however to give a far more positive set of reasons for endorsing National Music than just referring to the obvious discomfort its contents are going to cause the cosmopolitan artistic effete of the modern age.
This book is no dry as dust delving into the theories of musical composition with a bit of patriotism thrown in, but rather contains at its core a cogently argued advocacy of the need for any healthy and vibrant culture to be nationally based. In "Should Music be National" Vaughan Williams writes: "Art... uses knowledge as a means to the evocation of personal experience in terms which will be intelligible to and command the sympathy of others. Those others must clearly be those who by race, tradition and cultural experience are nearest to him (the artist)."
For Vaughan Williams, as a national artist, one of the great beauties of art as he saw it was the very diversity of its expression, and that diversity was in turn dependent upon the writer, composer, painter etc. being true to the heritage and traditions of his own land. The alternative in his eyes was "that emasculated standardization of life which will add culture to political internationalism."
It was for reasons such as this that Vaughan Williams had no time for those English musical contemporaries of his who in their anxiety to appear chic, radical and original either ignored the heritage of their homeland or else sought to expel it from their system altogether by what Vaughan Williams calls "Negroid emetics." Such composers he further states "thought their own country not good enough for them and so went off in the early stages to become little Germans or Frenchmen. Their names I will not give you because they are unknown even to their fellow countrymen".
Elsewhere in the book Vaughan Williams turns his attentions to the origins and development of the folk song idiom, a subject which was a lifelong study for one whose music is often so redolent with the songs and verse of the villages and hamlets of England. It was upon these traditions, passed down from generation to generation, so Vaughan Williams argues, that the resurgance of British music in the twentieth century was based. Along with other folk song collectors he felt "that this is what we expected our national melody to be, we knew somehow that when we heard 'Dives and Lazarus' or 'Bushes and Briars' that this was just what we were looking for ... we were dazzled, we wanted to preach a new gospel..."
Of course not all the book can be seen just as a paean to the tenets of cultural nationalism. Also included is an often witty essay on the problems of writing music for films, and perhaps most fascinating of all, a series of obituaries and appreciations for other English composers who Vaughan Williams knew well. There is for example a sizeable essay on the life and music of Gustav Holst. Of this, his closest friend, Vaughan Williams writes: "If to have 'lived' it is necessary to have eloped with a prima donna, to have played mean tricks on one's friends, to be dirty and drunken ... then indeed the word has little meaning for a man like Holst. But if to live may be summed up in the words, 'Whatsoever they hand findeth to do, do it with thy might', then Holst lived to the full."
Vaughan Williams also makes a very interesting revelation concerning the involvement the young Holst had with the patriotic socialist movement of William Morris, which in its ideals demanded "beauty in every detail of human life and work."
Those who are lovers of Holst's music will find much to chew over in the honest criticism of Vaughan Williams, who had in his own day often sought the opinion of Holst on many a score where he found himself stuck for inspiration. From such sessions, their "field days" as both composers called them, there was a rich cross-fertilization of ideas which Vaughan Williams admits was a terrific help in achieving his true artistic maturity.
That artistic maturity was to provide his country with some of its greatest music; music which is just as accessible as the honestly expressed written opinions of its creator. I am delighted to report that reading through this book caused me no distress, feigned or otherwise, but instead reminded me that there was a time, not so very long ago, when an Englishman could proclaim himself a nationalist and a patriot without encountering howls of rage from those who were supposedly his countrymen, or looks of embarrassed distress from those who were supposedly his friends. So let me finish with just one more quote from the thoughts of this truly great Englishman: "If the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil, and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls."