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Ralph Vaughan Williams, Leith Hill Musical Festival and Bach’s St Matthew Passion

PUBLISHED: 16:53 08 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:53 08 March 2017

Singers at Leith Hill Musical Festival (Photo: Brian Bailey)

Singers at Leith Hill Musical Festival (Photo: Brian Bailey)


Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the most important composers of the 20th century and the Surrey landscape was a key influence on his music. Tinx Newton looks back at his life, and at the impact he has had on Leith Hill Musical Festival

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1923 (Photo: Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust)Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1923 (Photo: Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2017


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) grew up at Leith Hill Place, having moved there with his family after the death of his father when he was just a toddler. Most of his childhood was spent at the imposing house on the slopes of Leith Hill and it was here that his Aunt Sophy (Wedgwood) taught him to play the piano and encouraged him to compose.

A natural musician, he also played the violin and loved traditional folk songs from an early age. At prep school, in Rottingdean, his lifelong love of Bach was kindled and at Charterhouse, in Godalming, he played violin and viola and gave his first public concert.

To his family’s great pride, Ralph went on to study at the Royal College of Music, in London, and was privileged to be a pupil of Sir Hubert Parry, who shared with his student a love of folk songs, hymns, and the glories of Tudor and Elizabethan music. After studying for three years at Trinity College, Cambridge, Ralph returned to the Royal College of Music in 1895, when he became a close friend of Gustav Holst whom he later described as “the greatest influence on my music”.

Not surprisingly Ralph found love and happiness with a fellow musician and he married Adeline Fisher, a talented cellist and pianist, in 1897. Throughout their marriage they shared the view that music should be part of everyone’s life, and not just the preserve of the elite. Music was in the family blood and when the Leith Hill Musical Festival was founded by Ralph’s sister, Margaret Vaughan Williams and her friend, Lady Evangeline Farrar, Ralph was appointed as conductor. From that day a wonderful musical legacy for Surrey was born.

Graham Muncy, former librarian at Surrey Performing Arts Library at Denbies Wine Estate, in Dorking, and Trustee of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, is the go¬to man to learn more about the history and music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

“The Leith Hill Musical Festival was a central and vital element in Vaughan Williams’ life,” he says. “He became the first festival conductor in 1905 for the initial combined concert at the Public Hall in West Street, Dorking, and he remained conductor of the festival until 1953 and continued as guest conductor until 1958, the year of his death.”

This year Brian Kay, who has been the festival’s conductor for 21 years, will hand the baton to Jonathan Willcocks. At the end of his long and inspiring leadership Brian said: “The original vision of Vaughan Williams has survived for 110 years and it would seem likely that it will go on forever, enriching the lives of so many Surrey people. I believe that he would be so proud that it continues to bear fruit today.”

Jonathan is well known as musical director of the Guildford Choral Society, the Chichester Singers and Surrey’s orchestra, Southern Pro Musica. “I feel so honoured to have assumed the role of festival conductor of the historic Leith Hill Musical Festival, following in the footsteps of the towering figure of the founding-conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams,” he says. “I am particularly excited that the April 2017 festival concerts should include one of Vaughan Williams’s greatest choral works, Dona nobis pacem, which speaks so powerfully and eloquently about the horrors of war - still so relevant and poignant in the troubled world in which we live. Music can transcend so much in life, and Vaughan Williams’s inspirational example will be with us all during the festival.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams lived in Dorking until 1953 and through the Leith Hill Musical Competitions he fostered musical participation of the highest quality for the whole community. He was still composing great music into his 80s and, at the age of 85, he was preparing to supervise the first recording of his Ninth Symphony with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. But he died on August 26, 1958, the night before the recording sessions were to begin, which prompted the conductor to announce to the musicians that their performance would forever be a memorial to the great composer.

He is remembered with fondness and admiration and Graham Muncy confirms his great musical legacy. “The people of Dorking and its surroundings, indeed the people of Surrey in general, can take enormous pride in their association with one of the 20th century’s most significant composers,” he says. “The Leith Hill Music Festival still thrives, uniting performers and audiences from Surrey’s towns and villages in friendly competition and in combined evening concerts where great music is made.”


Leith Hill Musical Festival 2017

Now regarded as one of the country’s leading choral events, the Leith Hill Musical Festival attracts many of the county’s best-known choirs to compete against one another and to perform daily concerts.

The St Matthew Passion was first performed at the festival in 1931 with a special massed choir of around 700 singers conducted by Vaughan Williams. The performance marked the opening of the Dorking Halls, which were built to house the growing festival and was in memory of the conductor’s sister and co-founder of the festival, Margaret Vaughan Williams, who had died earlier that year. The St Matthew continued to be conducted by Vaughan Williams at the festival until 1958.

The main festival is held annually in Dorking over a three-day period around Easter. Each morning is devoted to a competition between choirs who sing set pieces, extracts from major works and a song of their own choice. The afternoons are spent rehearsing together and a concert performance includes a professional orchestra and soloists.

In March, festival members and independent singers are invited to take part in a performance of one of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion or Handel’s Messiah. A Youth Choirs Competition is also held in the spring term and is very popular with around 30 school and young people’s choirs taking part.


The Musical Score

Conservation work has enabled Vaughan Williams’s St Matthew Passion score to be stabilised for future generations, research and performance.

Leith Hill Musical Festival was approached last year by conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who performed all the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams in Leningrad in the late 1980s. He was keen to perform Bach’s St Matthew Passion with The State Academic Symphony Capella of Russia at the Moscow Conservatoire using a copy of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ full score.

This early 20th century score, originally bound in a quarter cloth binding, was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s working interpretation of the St Matthew Passion, with multiple manuscript and blank inserts, glued and sellotaped into the printed textblock. The nature of the poor quality materials used to create the score meant that the leaves were inherently fragile, resulting in extensive damage through use and handling. Hence extensive conservation has been necessary.

Victoria Stevens, an accredited conservator and member of the Institute of Conservation, was able to stabilise the inherent self-destructive tendencies of the score. Using her knowledge of 19th and 20th century paper and binding materials and her extensive experience of library and archive conservation, she used small strips of high-quality, long-fibred Japanese tissue, adhered with a very pure form of paste. This was a long and painstaking process, resembling a complex jigsaw puzzle at times.

She says, “The information in the score can now be accessed and used as it was intended by Vaughan Williams without risk to the original, which has now been stabilised for posterity, future careful handling and display.”

Festival chairman Graham Aslet adds, “It is an exciting project and we all benefit from seeing the score restored and hope that many more generations will be able to enjoy it. We are very grateful to the orchestra for funding the restoration. It will be interesting to see how Vaughan Williams’ markings influence the performance. A recording of the 1958 Festival concert runs to more than two and a half hours which is very long for a modern day audience”.

The score is owned by Leith Hill Musical festival and is kept by the Surrey Performing Arts Library in their Vaughan Williams Collection. The restored original score will be housed in a specially made display case, which will be available to view at the Surrey Performing Arts Library later in the year.

• Performing Arts Library, Denbies Wine Estate, London Road, Dorking RH5 6AA: Tel: 01306 875453. Web:


Key dates

• Jonathan Willcocks leads a performance of the St Matthew Passion on Sunday. March 12.

• The LHMF Youth Choirs’ Competition takes place on Saturday, March 18.

• Dona Nobis Pacem, Vaughan Williams, Blest Pair of Sirens Parry is on Thursday, April 6.

• Elijah Mendelssohn will be on Friday, April 7.

• Benedicite Carter, Little Organ Mass Haydn is on Saturday, April 8.

Events take place at Dorking Halls, Dorking, Surrey RH4 1SG. Email: Tel: 01403 240093 Web:

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