John Bridcut's film The Passions of Vaughan Williams is now available on DVD, marking the 60th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Understanding a composer as a human being enriches our appreciation of his music. When this film was first shown on BBC TV it shocked some. So RVW liked women ? There are worse sins and no coercion seems to have been involved. When Ursula Vaughan Williams wrote her memoirs, she had to be circumspect. But she outlived most of their circle and in later years was irrepressibly candid, and we should respect her. Ten years on from the first broadcast, I think we're mature enough to be able to cope, if we genuinely love the music.
Bridcut's film is authoritative, based as it is on the testimony of those who knew the man and his music, amongst them Michael Kennedy and Richard Hickox, both now passed away. Anthony Payne, fortunately, is still with us, and hopefully for a long time yet. There's a beautiful shot in which Kennedy is seen listening to a recording of A Sea Symphony, his face at once alert and contemplative. There are clips of a live performance of the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis, with the "long, long reverberation time", in the words of Nicola Le Fanu, resonating into the vastness of Gloucester Cathedral , the camera panning on the huge stone pillars. Archive film of Edwardian London are shown with clips of modern London to the sound of A London Symphony : RVW was an urbanite through and through. The war years are evoked by photographs of the composer in uniform, and the strains of Symphony no 3, by no means "pastoral".
If Vaughan Williams cut a Falstaffian figure (in the words of Robert Tear "like a sofa, with the stuffing coming out"), he was also an Ariel. He needed youth and beauty. Flos campi, says Michael Kennedy, quoting Ursula, was not "a mystical work but Ralph's most senuous sensual work", inspired in part by a young woman whom the composer encouraged, working himself up into passion but taking things no further. He also had what might have been a flirtation with Fanny Farrar, which seems to have ended in disappointment on her part. Clips from RVW's Fourth Symphony and Satan's Dance from Job, a Masque for Dancing make one wonder whether the composer used more negative things to generate his music. This film also includes a taped interview, then hitherto unheard, in which Ursula describes the first kiss which led soon after to a full blown affair. Nonetheless, RVW and Adeline were close, to the extent that Ursula was jealous. How Adeline felt about the situation, we shall never know, since we only have Ursula's point of view, which understandably, she might have sanitized. Adeline's family were less impressed. But what choice did Adeline have, given her dependence ? Quite possibly she was more hurt than she let on. Perhaps one day the story can be told giving Adeline more respect, for she, too, was a strong character, and had served the composer loyally.
After Adeline's funeral, Vaughan Williams went into a rage, destroying her things, then moving back to London. His final years were happy, creatively and personally. We hear snatches of the Ninth Symphony and Tired, the most personal of the Four Last Songs. John Bridcut has made many films, some somewhat uneven, but The Passions of Vaughan Williams is one of his finest. Biography is speculation, but it is also a search for truth. Art itself is a search for truth, greater even than those who create it.