When it comes to scheduling eccentricities, this must take the biscuit: 9am on New Year’s Day for a three hour documentary film! At least Channel 5 commissioned it – this was the project that was notoriously rejected by some drone at the BBC who thought it didn’t fit in with their “vision”, or some such garbage, but that they would be willing to reconsider if Mr Vaughan Williams had any personal appearances lined up that would raise his profile. Quite. Since he’s long been my favourite composer, it wasn’t something I was going to miss merely because of the odd hour at which it was shown..
Tony Palmer is a veteran documentary maker who started out in the sixties with some of the first films to take popular music seriously. It seems, though, that all he has done before was leading up to this. O Thou Transcendent is a magnificent film that explores in depth both the music and the man.
Ralph Vaughan Williams has been lumbered with a public image of an avuncular stalwart of old English values – of Anglicanism, public school, summer meadows and Classic FM. It’s a gross and inaccurate caricature, as this film made clear. It’s true that he was born into the upper Middle Class, related to both Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, and he was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford. But he transcended class, and was a bundle of contradictions. Although he wrote much church music, including many familiar hymns, he was a lifelong agnostic. And although he wrote the music for the present Queen’s coronation, he refused all subsequent offers of honours and was a staunch socialist. He was passionate about English folk song traditions, and was an avid collector alongside Cecil Sharp and his friend Gustav Holst. Much of his music made free use of folk song. When the First World War began he was 42 years old and exempt from active service, but this didn’t prevent him from volunteering to give his services at the front as a humble stretcher bearer (many of his friends who volunteered with him died in the conflict).
Palmer’s film uses historical footage, new and archive interviews with a surprisingly large and diverse set of people (the archive audio of RVW speaking reveals a man with a very dry wit and a master of understatement), and extensive excerpts of the music newly recorded especially for the occasion. He portrays Vaughan Williams essentially as a pessimistic humanitarian and humanist whose bleak outlook was, nevertheless, accompanied by a great feeling for his fellow human beings. Watching bleary eyed on a wet Ne’er Day morning was probably not the finest time to see it – especially punctuated by extremely irritating ads for winter sales and the like. Happily it’s available on DVD without all that annoying frippery. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in RVW in particular, or 20th century classical music in general.