A slender biography of English composer Vaughan Williams that pays more attention to the music than the man.
Heffer (Moral Desperado, 1996) recounts the trajectory of Williams’s life with the broadest of strokes: a mere four pages cover the period between the composer’s birth and his enrollment at the Royal College of Music. This is indicative of the author’s deeper focus on Williams’s music and compositions rather than the quotidian experiences of his life. Although the author portrays Williams as a most genial and humane man, one who volunteered his services in both world wars and treated his friends (such as fellow composer Gustav Holst) generously, intimate—or even interesting—details about his personal life are in short supply. Rather, Heffer traces the interconnections between his subject’s music and the traditions of English folksong. Resisting the sway of Germanic influence, we are told, Williams’s compositions articulate a distinctly English voice, and this musical theme became a personal manifesto. He spoke widely on the virtues of a nationalistic voice in music, most notably in a series of lectures delivered at Bryn Mawr College and later published as National Music (1935). Heffer also details the influence that various writers and poets had on Williams, including John Skelton, Paul Bunyan, Walt Whitman, and A.E. Housman. Williams’s career was much lauded during his lifetime, and he was honored with the University of Bristol’s first honorary doctorate of music and the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of the Arts. So very much happened in this man’s life that the scantiness of Heffer’s account will leave the majority of the composer's fans hungry for more. This frustratingly slim volume concludes with a select discography of Williams’s works.
Brevity may be the soul of wit, but biography often deserves a little bit more.