The Lark Ascending: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Surrey

PUBLISHED: 09:07 01 April 2011 | UPDATED: 15:10 05 August 2014

The Lark Ascending: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Surrey

The Lark Ascending: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Surrey

One of England's best-loved composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams spent much of his life in and around the Dorking area

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2011


About the man...
While Denbies Vineyard in Dorking is quite rightly renowned for its award-winning wine, you may be less aware that it is also home to Surrey’s performing arts library and with it the Vaughan Williams Collection.

“The mission of the collection is to promote knowledge of one of our greatest 20th century composers,” says honorary Vaughan Williams collection librarian Graham Muncy, who was appointed to put the library together in 1981 before taking retirement in 2008.

“He was, after all, one of the county’s most famous residents and unlike other composers, we do not have a birthplace museum (as with Elgar) or an arts complex (as with Britten at Snape) or any other ‘public’ building particularly associated with him.”

In fact, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ house in Dorking, the White Gates, was demolished in the 1960s, while Leith Hill Place, his childhood home on nearby Leith Hill, is in the ownership of the National Trust, but is rented out privately.

“He was one of my favourite composers anyway,” continues Graham. “There was already much RVW material in the library system and I was lucky enough to be able to draw it all together in Dorking. I still try to visit the collection regularly.”

Born in Gloucestershire in 1872, Vaughan Williams grew up at Leith Hill Place after the family moved to Surrey when he was three, and stayed close to his roots when he was appointed the first conductor of the Leith Hill Musical Festival in 1904, a post he held until 1953. He lived in Dorking from 1929 until 1953 and maintained connections with the town and the festival until his death in 1958.

“One of his important early works, Pilgrim’s Progress, was first produced at Reigate Priory and he conducted choirs in the south of Surrey in his earlier years,” says Graham. “After World War Two, he was also instrumental in the creation of musical summer schools in Kingston and did much to promote music education across the county.”

During the war, there are stories of him pushing a cart around the town collecting scrap, fire-watching and helping refugees from Nazi Europe. More generally, as well as his cultural influence on the area, he also wore a ‘heritage’ hat as president of the local preservation society.

“I suppose my favourite, if slightly apocryphal, story concerns his fourth symphony,” says Graham. “First performed in 1934, it is a particularly violent, discordant and disturbing piece of music that many early commentators felt was his slant on the political situation in Europe and the rise of fascism. However, it is said that those ‘in the know’ in Dorking believe it to be his stormy reaction to the construction of the Dorking bypass!” 

Whatever his true influences, his music remains as popular as ever; indeed, The Lark Ascending was recently voted the ‘best-loved piece of classical music’ for the fourth year running by Classic FM radio listeners. There certainly doesn’t appear to be any danger of this great English composer being forgotten anytime soon. 

  • See the Vaughan Williams Collection at the Performing Arts Library, Denbies Wine Estate, London Road, Dorking RH5 6AA: 01306 875453. For more information on the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society and the various events that are organised, visit their website at



Leith Hill Musical Festival...

AS FOUNDER conductor of the annual Leith Hill Musical Festival, the event always held a special place in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ heart.

First performed at the Leith Hill Musical Festival in 1931, with a special massed choir of 700 singers conducted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 80 years on the St Matthew Passion was once again used to open the 2011 festival season in Dorking.

“This tradition is a real musical and spiritual treat and it is with immense pleasure that we fulfil Vaughan Williams’ request that we should continue to perform this great music by Bach,” says the festival conductor since 1996, Brian Kay, who is also a presenter on Radio 3.

The original performance coincided with the opening of the Dorking Halls, which the festival has called home ever since (bar 1996 when refurbishment saw it moved to Vaughan Williams’ old school, Charterhouse in Godalming, for a year).

The main festival runs over three days in April and still operates to the outline laid down in 1905: in the morning, the 12 choirs participate in friendly competition; and in the afternoon they combine to rehearse under the festival conductor with professional orchestra and soloists for the evening’s public concert.

“When I first conducted at the Dorking Halls, it was certainly a baptism of fire,” says 90-year-old Dorking resident and RVW archivist Renee Stewart, who has been involved in the festival since 1956. “With the amateur choirs more used to playing much smaller venues, the festival is always very exciting but also a bit nerve-wracking.”

While Renee never knew Ralph Vaughan Williams personally, she did meet him as a student at the local college in the 1940s when he deputised for her professor and often sang in the choir when he was conducting.

“He did so much to help local music and that tradition continues,” says Renee. “We’ve been very lucky with all the conductors we have had since Vaughan Williams founded the festival; they’ve all been fine musicians and people.”

However, it’s not just villagers from the competing choirs that get involved. Such is the festival’s draw that one lady will be travelling all the way from Northampton to take part in the St Matthew Passion this year – and that includes rehearsals!

While individual singers travel from far and wide, the festival would love to see more adult choral groups signing up. That said, the future looks bright with a huge surge in interest from younger performers.

“At the rate our youth day competition is growing, we may even have to consider a second day,” says Felicity Hill, the organiser of the event on Saturday March 19. “The registrar of the Royal Academy of Music, Philip White, who for a number of years was conductor of Dorking Choral Society at the festival, is this year’s adjudicator.”

While Vaughan Williams may no longer be around to cycle village to village, passing on his own experience and advice along the way, he’d no doubt have approved of its continuing generation-to-generation appeal.



The show must go on...

MUSICIAN Andy Duerden has lived in the former Surrey home of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Leith Hill Place, for nearly ten years, and released his debut album, Masterpiece, in March 2011.

“They are actually in the process of deciding what to do with the house at the moment, and its future may not include me,” says Andy, who has rented the property from the National Trust for the last three years, after originally moving in to take up a teaching job at what was then Hurtwood House School. “However, I have steadfastly tried to impress on them the need to preserve the fantastic and truly tangible creative vibe that exists here.

“For me as a muso, just to have this space in common with RVW is extremely special and is an inspiration in itself. Aside of that, as a classically trained musician, I am a huge fan of his work and share his love of this area.”

In fact, the stories of Vaughan Williams cycling through the local hills and ‘collecting’ folk songs to weave into his works provided the inspiration for Andy to write the album track The Songcatcher.

“It’s about him, and quotes and refers to his music; kind of RVW, the next generation,” laughs Andy. “I should add that Hugh Cobbe and the RVW Charitable Trust gave full and very enthusiastic permission for me to do this.”

Vaughan Williams’ music is inherently English, dragged out of the land and its people, and while Andy’s music is more on the side of melodic rock than classical, with songs about Bobby Moore – a charity record released during the World Cup – and the title track written for his son, the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.

It seems the composer’s influence doesn’t end there, either. “A ghost walked across my bedroom,” says Andy. “Honest! Now, I’m not saying it was definitely him but the song, Ordinary Man, was written about five minutes later!”



A world premiere...

THE WORLD premiere of A Cambridge Mass, a piece written by Ralph Vaughan Williams as a student at Cambridge University, took place in Croydon on Thursday March 3, 2011 – it had been in the safe-keeping of the university’s library for more than 100 years.

“I was leaving the library one day in 2007 and noticed an arrow pointing to an exhibition entitled Keeping the Score: Music in the Library,” says conductor Alan Tongue. “Among the many manuscripts was a double page spread of a big choral piece by Vaughan Williams dated 1899.”

Bowled over by its quality, he determined to conduct the, until now, unperformed piece.

“It is the first big work of Vaughan Williams’ that we have, predating A Sea Symphony by ten years, and showing signs of his mature style,” he says. 

“The work is written before bleakness enters his music, and just before his hymn writing period, and he is already writing highly sing-able tunes with a happy, optimistic, positive sound.”

Tongue, who studied music at Jesus College, Cambridge, and lives in the city, has spent much of his career taking English music around the world. He is looking forward to revisiting the Fairfield Halls, a venue he believes to have ‘perfect acoustics’, with The Bach Choir, which Vaughan Williams conducted for seven years.

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