Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult

Writing about Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult has been a labour of love. As a ten-year old boy, the first orchestral concert I ever attended was in March 1967, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian in Reading Town Hall. Simply put, that evening – and particularly the performance of Brahms’s Third Symphony at the end of it – ignited a lifelong passion for music. During my teenage years I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Boult conduct on many occasions in London, and music by Vaughan Williams was often on the programme. Along with everyone else in a packed Royal Festival Hall, I sat spellbound at Boult’s Vaughan Williams Centenary Concert on 12 October 1972, which included a wonderful performance of Job (which Vaughan Williams dedicated ‘To Adrian Boult’). That concert has now been released on DVD, and my memory wasn’t playing tricks: it turned out to be every bit as good as I remembered it. I have similar memories of Boult’s performance of A London Symphony earlier the same year, as well as several Proms in the Royal Albert Hall: the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Tallis Fantasia, and, above all, another Job in August 1977, another unforgettable concert made poignant in retrospect as it turned out to be Sir Adrian’s last ever appearance at a Prom.

As an enthusiastic schoolboy in 1972, I wrote to Boult about the early versions of A London Symphony and received a wonderfully detailed reply by return of post. Later, during my student years at Manchester University, I corresponded with him regularly (his letters full of fascinating details and wonderful anecdotes). After his retirement, Boult invited me to his flat in West Hampstead on several occasions. It was on those visits that I first encountered his music library, housed in an enormous breakfront bookcase, carefully organised, and with correspondence from the composers and others tucked inside many of the scores. Boult was also assiduous in noting down when he had performed each work: long handwritten lists of performances are to be found in most of his scores. He also delighted in showing these priceless documents to anyone with a serious interest in the stories they might be able to tell.

With my university friend Simon Mundy, I compiled a book of tributes for Sir Adrian, published in 1980, but I always hoped that I might have an opportunity to delve deeper into his extraordinary career, particularly his close associations with the likes of Vaughan Williams, Holst and Elgar. Little did I imagine that more than forty years later I would be able to write about Vaughan Williams and Boult, drawing on those same scores that I had found so engrossing in the 1970s, still kept in the same huge breakfront bookcase, which is now in the care of his step-grandson.

Vaughan Williams and Boult first met in 1909 and their friendship lasted for the next half century, until Vaughan Williams’s death in 1958. They worked very closely on important projects, above all for the first complete recording of the symphonies (the front cover of my book is a photo taken at one of the sessions in Kingsway Hall), but long before that Boult had conducted the premieres of the revised London Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony, and the Fourth and Sixth symphonies, as well as several smaller pieces (including The Lark Ascending). While they saw each other quite often socially, what makes their association so interesting to us now is the way their professional collaboration helps to illuminate how Vaughan Williams wanted his music to be performed. Several of the chapters are devoted to individual works – particularly the symphonies – referring to the annotations in Boult’s scores which came directly from Vaughan Williams (carefully noted ‘RVW’ by Boult), discussing his magnificent legacy of recordings, and providing details of all his known performances of Vaughan Williams’s works and the reaction to these in the press at the time.

I began this book in 2019 and early in 2020 I spent several days photographing all of Boult’s Vaughan Williams material. It made the perfect project during the ‘missing’ lockdown months in 2020 and 2021. By happy chance (and with memories of Vaughan Williams’s 100th birthday concert still fresh in my mind even though it was way back in 1972), it also provided a wonderful opportunity for me to celebrate his 150th birthday in 2022.

This guest post was written by NIGEL SIMEONE, music scholar, writer and broadcaster specializing in twentieth-century music. He is the author of numerous books. For the Boydell Press he is the co-author with John Tyrrell of Charles Mackerras (2015) and the author of The Janáček Compendium (2019). 

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult
By Nigel Simeone 
ISBN: 9781783277292, Hardback
List price: £50 / $75 
Blog price: £32.50 / $48.75 

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