In the porch of St. Martinís Church Dorking is a bronze memorial showing a brooding relief of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I used to pass it every time I went to Church as a teenager. As a bell ringer I would come down the belfry steps and go past it as I went into Church.
I was aware of Ralph Vaughan Williams as a child because my auntie sang in one of the local choirs that took part in the Leith Hill Music which RVW conducted for many years. He lived in Dorking for a part of his life Ė in exile from his beloved London Ė because his first wife Adeline was an invalid. His memory continued to live on in the town when I was growing up & still does today.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of his death & we are encouraged to give thanks for his contribution to English Church Music. RVW was the musical editor of the English Hymnal back in 1906 - hence our use of the English Hymnal today. All our hymn tunes today are associated with him as a composer and arranger.
We can pick out several aspects of RVWís life that both inform & reflect Christian faith.
- Christian agnosticism. RVW was not Christian in the orthodox sense despite being the son of a parson. That he was related to Darwin, members of the Bloomsbury Group and various leftward leaning freethinkers makes his Christian agnosticism unsurprising. One of the strengths of the C of E is, or used to be, that it was broad enough to carry such sympathetic searchers after truth.
- Search for the transcendent. RVW was not an atheist, he had a sense of something beyond which he reached out to and gave expression to in his music. To listen to his music is to be led to think about the possibility of God, the God of the via negativa, if not of strong faith.
- Rooted in English Catholicism. With his English Hymnal co- editor, Revíd Percy Dearmer; RVW drew on & gave fresh expression to the inheritance of English Catholic tradition as well as that of the post reformation period. This did not always endear him to the more Protestant minded, but it helped the Church of England to recover the riches of its inheritance, something which continues in our liturgy today.
- Transmission of memory. With Cecil Sharpe, RVW was a collector of English folk songs. Some of his early recordings survive. By incorporating them into his music, including hymns, he ensured their survival when they were in danger of being lost. Christianity is a religion of memory, recollection and handing on. RVW fed into this.
- Giving expression to human experience in art. In his music RVW explored the full range of what it means to be human. He ranged from the pastoral, through to life on London streets. He explored anger and desire, love & death, reflecting his own complex love life. He drew on his own experiences of the horrors of trench warfare and faced the black possibilities of nuclear annihilation. His spirituality was profound. It may not have been Christian but he dealt with the stuff of Christian spirituality. He informs and gives shape to our inner life.
- ĎAn unresolved Amení. Words used by a music critic to describe a phrase in RVWís 6th Symphony, words which I find helpful in thinking about Christian faith. If we think we have resolution this side of eternity then we are in danger of replacing the living God with an idol of our own making. If we are afraid to confront the dark possibility that there is no God, only blackness, then we donít have faith, only a false certainty.
I trust I have said enough to inform our thankfulness for the life and especially the music of RVW. He helps us sing & it is when we sing that we are most able to worship & give praise to God. Because of the way in which his music explores the complexities of human life and is unafraid of the big questions he can help us make sense of own life and faith. Whilst as people of faith we will wish to go beyond his Christian agnosticism we can respect its integrity & profundity.
We will wish to respond with an unresolved amen to a significant life that ended 50 years ago today.
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