Brentwood's unique connection to iconic composer Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams
PUBLISHED: 10:49 28 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:49 28 August 2018
On the 60th anniversary of the passing of one of England's most inspired and iconic composers, Sylvia Kent shares why a visit to Brentwood changed the course of both the career and composition of Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams
This August will be memorable for music lovers around the world. On Sunday, August 26 there will undoubtedly be concerts and radio programmes commemorating the 60 year anniversary of the passing of Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The love for the music of this quintessentially English composer lives on in his most evocative folk-songs. Along with Cyril Sharp, another musical genius whose work was becoming well known at the start of the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ interest in traditional English songs of the countryside has played an enormous part in England’s musical legacy.
15 years ago, the Essex Record Office’s Sound and Video Archive staged a superb exhibition devoted to the 100th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ first visit to Essex. The occasion was a lecture at Brentwood School in the spring of 1903. The evening of that first talk – within a six-visit course — was part of the Oxford University-based presentations on folk song.
He had been invited by Kate Bryan, headmistress at Montpelier House Girls School in Queens Road (later renamed Brentwood County High School before its relocation).
The course proved to be, not only most successful for the students, but stayed forever in the memory of this talented young composer. His disposition at this time was one of despondency with his own style of work.
Much later he wrote of this point in his life that he felt, “at the crossroads” in his career. German music was popular at the time, but Vaughan Williams had for years been trying to compose music that drew on specifically English traditions. In this regard he had been researching folk song, much of which was in danger of being forgotten.
A friend of Kate Bryan, Georgiana Heatley who was known as Locksie, had a keen ear for music. She was the daughter of the Rector of nearby Ingrave, Reverend Henry Heatley, and, knowing that some of the servants at the Rectory often sang ditties and old country songs, invited the composer to tea. Vaughan Williams was delighted to accept. Here he met Locksie’s father and siblings. Reverend Heatley was a sad figure.
His wife Marion had died while giving birth to their ninth child years earlier. The baby had also died shortly after, followed by the family’s eldest daughter. This tragedy had far-reaching repercussions on the family. Parishioners believed that he had responded to the bereavements by making his children promise never to marry – making for a melancholic household!
However, with this notable composer in their presence, they tried to make merry. Georgiana called upon Charles Potiphar, a 74-year-old local gardener, to sing a few songs knowing that he had a pleasant singing voice. This land worker was illiterate, but she knew he enjoyed singing and thought the Victorian lyrics might interest her guest.
The elderly parishioner, who worshipped at St Nicholas Church, suddenly became shy and wouldn’t perform. Try as she might, Locksie could not coax the old gentleman to sing for her visitor. She later realised that his refusal to sing the rather risqué songs containing words of love and longing might offend the rector in that semi-religious situation.
But Vaughan Williams was intrigued. Next morning, Friday, December 4, 1903, he borrowed a bicycle and rode the three miles from Brentwood to Ingrave village to visit Mr Potiphar. The road was little more than a rough cart-track and when he arrived at Middle Road, he propped the bike against the gatepost and walked up the path of the tiny cottage.
Mr Potiphar, wearing a simple labourer’s smock, was leaning against the timber door-frame. Finally, the old chap was ready to sing. Without even offering Vaughan Williams a cup of tea, he launched into the first verse of his favourite song Bushes and Briars.
Vaughan Williams wrote in his diary that he was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the melody and words of this poignant country love song. Lady Ursula Vaughan Williams, who wrote a biography of her husband, said: “He felt it was something he had known all his life”. The thought that such songs could be lost forever, turned him instantly into an enthusiastic collector. Vaughan Williams himself, considered this moment in a small Essex village, was to be the most influential in his early musical career.
Local historian Frank Dineen wrote in his book, Ralph’s People — The Ingrave Secret, “The composer was entranced. That single song had such tremendous impact on the young man, who for some time had been searching for a new direction in his development as a composer. Bushes and Briars influenced his subsequent style of composition.”
Dineen himself was intrigued with the story that had evolved on his own doorstep, having lived not half a mile from Potiphar’s home all his life. Immediately he began researching the story which evolved into his book, taking five years to write and being published in 1998 by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.
Following the first meeting at Potiphar’s cottage, Vaughan Williams returned again to Essex in January 1904. Over the next year, he spent ten days cycling around the county visiting Billericay, Little Burstead, East Horndon and Chelmsford among other places, collecting folk songs. From the country as a whole he collected more than 800 songs and variations. In 1906 he revised the famous English Hymnal and used around 40 of the tunes he had collected from Essex.
During his long life which saw him compose much of his most iconic music for orchestra and film, Vaughan Williams often mentioned Essex and Ingrave in general. In 1955, just a few years before his death aged 86 on August 26, 1958, this great composer – now at the height of his fame – returned to Brentwood School, the venue of his first lecture on folk song.
He recalled for his audience that first visit half a century earlier, which had such a profound influence on his life and was a springboard into a new style of composition.
Of course music lovers will never forget Vaughan Williams’ wonderful music and what a wonderful reminder for those living on the new Brentwood housing development at Clements Park, Warley.
Here, you could reside on Greensleeves Drive, Pastoral Way, Drovers Mead, Tallis Way, Lark Close, Potiphar’s Place, Fantasia Court or even Vaughan Williams Way itself. Lovely associations linked to one remarkable composer.