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Vaughan William’s interest in English folk songs

This entry is part of 6 in the series

"Vaughan Williams on Culture"

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An interest in English folk songs emerged in England toward the end of the nineteenth century. By 1898 the Folk Song Society was founded, and rising composer Ralph Vaughan Williams joined the Society in 1904.1 The Society had been perfectly comfortable simply discussing folk music in the abstract until an influential folk tune advocate named Cecil Sharp challenged them to actually collect folk tunes and promote their use in the art music of the day.2 Vaughan Williams was strongly influenced by Sharp’s admonition and very soon joined him in his cataloguing and advocacy of the folk tunes of English heritage.

It is upon this foundation that Vaughan Williams’s career as a composer began, and his connection with English folk music soon became ingrained in the consciousness of musical and national society. As Simon Heffer notes, “The effects would be spectacularly far-reaching: folk-songs would not merely shape Vaughan Williams as a composer, they would, through him, shape a whole school of English music that would for years be indissolubly associated with the Royal College and what would come to be called the ‘English musical establishment.'”3

In an attempt to understand Vaughan Williams’s thoughts regarding folk music and specifically its difference from pop music, I will draw largely from one of his writings that deals specifically with this topic, National Music. Additionally, since Cecil Sharp had such a strong influence upon Vaughan Williams and his love for the English folk tune, I will also use his important work, English Folk-Song; Some Conclusions, in an attempt to uncover both Vaughan Williams’s and Sharp’s understandings and motivations behind their loyalty to folk music.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. James Day, Vaughan Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 24. []
  2. Ibid., 25. []
  3. Simon Heffer, Vaughan Williams (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000), 24. []