This August sees the fiftieth anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ death, and this has given rise to two films about the composer already this year. After Tony Palmer’s magnificent three hour film O Thou Transcendent shown on Channel Five on New Year’s Day, we get the BBC’s offering, The Passions Of Vaughan Williams. It was a frustrating film. It didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be – a serious discourse on England’s greatest twentieth century composer, or a tabloid style piece of tittle-tattle about his love life. On the one hand, there was some serious and illuminating points made about works like, for example, the Pastoral Symphony, and how it was more inspired by the devastation of the Western Front than English meadows. Then later we have a debate about whether Ralph and Ursula shagged on their first date. The flimsy linkage being that RVW wrote passionate music because he was a passionate man. Next week, BBC4 reveals the crapping habits of bears.
There is a place for an exploration of Vaughan Williams’ relationships within a musical biography, but it was altogether overdone. Palmer’s film was more balanced on the subject. Writer / director / narrator John Bridcut, to his credit, seemed to find more interviewees than Palmer, and the musical sequences were superbly performed and staged. But overall it was an uneasily balanced film.
While I’m on the subject, a major disappointment of Alex Ross’s otherwise excellent book The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century, is the almost complete absence of Vaughan Williams (and Elgar, Holst, Walton and Delius for that matter). OK, his international reputation is nothing like his reputation at home, unlike true world figures like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Shostakovitch. But to have a whole chapter on Benjamin Britten? That’s just barking.