As the young and still mostly unknown Music Editor for the English Hymnal (1906), it fell to him to compose four tunes, needed to fit texts that were to be in the book. All remain in use; three of the four are indispensable:
- Down Ampney (Come down, O love divine)
- Randolph (God be with you till we meet again)
- Salve feste dies (Hail thee, festival day)
And most of all:
- Sine nomine (For all the saints)
Other tunes followed in later books, especially Kings Weston (At the Name of Jesus). But more even than these tunes, it was his philosophy of hymn singing, rooted in his love and knowledge of English folksong, that took English hymnody out of the nineteenth century propriety of Victorian chapel and music room into the fresh air. For, as I think he discovered when he began working with hymn tunes, the best of the Old Tunes are a type of folk music, rooted in the faith of common people – not the theologians or clergy – who know that God is with them come what may.
The task of providing congregations with familiar tunes is difficult; for, unfortunately, many of the tunes of the present day [that is, 1906]… are quite unsuitable to their purpose. More often than not they are positively harmful to those who sing and hear them…
The usual argument in favour of bad music is that the fine tunes are doubtless ‘musically correct’, but that the people want ‘something simple’. Now the expression ‘musically correct’ has no meaning: the only ‘correct’ music is that which is beautiful and noble. As for simplicity, what could be simpler than ‘St. Anne’ or ‘The Old Hundredth’, and what could be finer?
It is indeed a moral rather than a musical issue. No doubt it requires a certain effort to tune oneself to the moral atmosphere implied by a fine melody; and it is far easier to dwell in the miasma of the languishing and sentimental hymn tunes which so often disfigure our services. Such poverty of heart may not be uncommon, but at least it should not be encouraged by those who direct the services of the Church… (Preface to the English Hymnal, pp. viii-ix)
Vaughan Williams wrote little for my instrument. There are the Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes (1920) which I have played many times over all the decades of my career – Bryn Calfaria, Rhosymedre, Hyfrydol. There is the little “Wedding Tune for Ann.” There are two more Preludes on Welsh songs (1956) -- Romanza: The White Rock (which I have not played) and the Toccata: St. David’s Day (which I have, and must play again; it makes a fine energetic postlude)
And there is this:
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Prelude and Fugue in C minor
The above recording is from my noontime recital on March 8. I have owned the score for many years. I have looked at it several times. And I have laid it aside: “I don’t have time to learn this, not now. Maybe next year.” The one-and-only large-scale work for organ by this composer whom I love, and I had never played it.
For me, the number of “next years” dwindles. I felt that it had to be now, so I programmed it for an Evensong last fall – and (as I had warned myself all those years) I ran out of time. I was able to prepare only the Prelude, finding myself tangled in knots with the two-against-three of the Fugue. That determined me to make it the centerpiece of the March recital, and I managed to work it up, some of the fugue falling into place only in the final days of preparation.
I do not know that I will play this piece again. But I am grateful that I have finally grappled with it. I have learned much. And I am honored that I can in my small way keep his music – this little and somewhat obscure corner of his work, at that – in living performance. I hope that my March 8 playing of it may bear fruit in some manner, but that is up to our Lord.