Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Percy Scholes

Letter No.: 
[Received on 7th December 1940]

The White Gates,

Dear Scholes

I was very glad to get your letter - It carries me back to very early days when we used to meet in London - I didn’t listen in the other night - I didn’t dare to - Alas I find I can seldom listen to music.  I find more & more that modern music means nothing to me - (I hope it means something to the younger generation - if so then it is all right - but does it?)
And the older music reminds me too much of old far off unhappy things1 - I liked the Purcell the other night & Haydn passim & Byrd in New College chapel - & the finale of the 9th Symphony tonight - which confirmed my opinion that the Finale is potentially the most magnificent of the 4 movements - That vulgar march with the drunken Welshman singing a Penillion to the tune is superb.2
Thank you very much for writing - it does one good to know that one’s life has not been quite useless - though it seems so nowadays.

R. Vaughan Williams

1. An allusion to Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper: "Will no-one tell me what she sings?/ Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow/ for old, unhappy, far-off things,/ and battles long ago."
2. In his essay ‘Some thoughts on Beethoven’s Choral Symphony’ written a year earlier in 1939 (but not published until 1953) VW writes of this passage in the symphony: ‘Then, against the march tune, a man’s voice is heard singing - probably a drunken soldier...He is without doubt a Welshman, for he is obviously singing a ‘Penillion’ to the principal melody, though he probably has not obeyed all the rules for Penillion singing. Gradually his companions join in and the song culminates in a lusty shout’. Note from Roger Savage (7 Jan 2010): ‘VW taking solace from Purcell on the BBC at a very dark point in the War, winter 1940. I looked up the relevant pages of Radio Times at the National Library of Scotland, and lo! it was Margaret Field-Hyde singing various songs + the Stratton Quartet playing Fantasies, the Chacony and the Golden Sonata (keyboardist not named) on Nov 26. The Byrd ref turns out to be to the Short Service which was in ‘Evensong from a College Chapel’ on Dec 3. (How did VW know it was New Coll.? Did he recognise the sound or was his bro-in-law still Warden & tipped him off?) ‘Haydn passim’ turned out to be true: I guess London was making it very clear that Haydn was a great Austrian master and not a Nazi stooge. Sargent had conducted Symphony 86 on Nov 30, on Dec 2 the Grillers played a pair of quartets, and up-coming was Trevor Harvey conducting ‘Winter’ from ‘The Seasons’ on Dec 6. Oh and the date and time of the letter are I think clinched by Radio Times scheduling a Boult-conducted Choral Symphony on Dec 4 finishing at 9pm (which would explain ‘the finale of the 9th Symphony tonight’).’


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Date of receipt noted on original; apparently written on 4 December; see footnote 2.

Cobbe 354
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