The Ralph Vaughan Williams Collection

To mark the 59th anniversary of his death on Saturday 26 August, Olivia Else, Academic Liaison Librarian for Music, explores the set of scores that originally belonged to Ralph Vaughan Williams that are now housed in the Library's Rare Books collection.

Vaughan Williams by Rothenstein in 1919.
Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/
wiki/File:Vaughan-Williams-
by-Rothenstein.jpg in the public domain.
As the Academic Liaison Librarian for Music at the University of York I am proud to oversee the excellent collection of scores and academic texts that are housed in the John Paynter Music Library, as well as the large selection of music related DVDs and CDs, microfiche and electronic resources held elsewhere in the building, or online.

One of the lesser known parts of the Library’s Rare Books collection includes a set of 81 scores bound together in 21 volumes that were originally owned by the eminent British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

The scores were gifted to the Library by the Department of Music’s Professor Nicola LeFanu, an internationally recognised composer in her own right, and she in turn received them from another acclaimed composer, her mother Elizabeth Maconchy, who studied under Vaughan Williams (henceforth RVW) at the Royal College of Music in the 1920s.

The somewhat eclectic set of scores contains works by RVW’s forbears, contemporaries and pupils, as well as a handful of his own works. Most interesting to scholars are perhaps the annotations on some of the works. Although most show no signs of having been used in performance, some of the chamber works contain fingering and rehearsal marks, and a number of the scores have handwritten dedications to RVW by their composers, including Gustav Holst (a close friend of RVWs), Herbert Howells (a younger composer profoundly influenced by RVW’s music) and Arnold Bax (another younger composer who developed a close working relationship with RVW).

A selection of annotated scores from the Ralph
Vaughan Williams collection. Photograph by Paul Shields. 

RVW appears to have solved a problem that many musicians continue to grapple with today. He bound his score collection into larger volumes to make it easier to find what he needed when searching through large quantities of anonymous looking slimline sheet music. Some of these volumes have rather beautiful covers with RVW’s initials embossed on them in gold, and all contain handwritten contents notes on the front flyleaf, apparently written by RVW himself.


Front cover and contents page of a collection of scores, Morris dance tunes. Photograph by Paul Shields. 


The two most exciting volumes in the set contain a handwritten reduced score of RVW’s ballad opera Hugh the Drover. The opera was first composed during the period 1910-1914 but it did not receive a formal performance until 1924. A scrawled note on the cover of the first volume states “Curwen
Editions 3661” and this indeed reflects the details of the publisher and plate number of the 1924 edition of the score, but our version appears to be a pre-publication copy, possibly a final proof.

Front cover of Hugh the drover: a romantic
ballad opera in two acts
. Photograph by Paul Shields.

Although largely identical to the published version, as you look through the score there are numerous areas of correction or re-working. On a casual glance it is impossible to be certain whether these reflect errors or deliberate revisions of the music - maybe there is a PhD thesis waiting for someone in these pages! What we do know is that Vaughan Williams continued to work on the score of Hugh the Drover throughout his lifetime, with the final version being published in 1956, over forty years after the work was first ‘finished’.

Annotations in Hugh the drover: a romantic
ballad opera in two acts
.Photograph by Paul Shields.  
Whatever the role played by these volumes in the evolution of Hugh the Drover, for myself as a librarian and music graduate it is thrilling to be able to handle scores with such an illustrious provenance, and gain a little insight into the workings of one of our nation’s greatest musicians. As with any item in the Library’s Rare Books Collections, members of the University can arrange to consult the RVW collection in the Borthwick Institute’s Search Rooms. A full list of the scores in the collection can be seen on YorSearch,  I do encourage you to come and make full use of them. As for me, I’m off to bind my own score collection in leather volumes with OJE embossed in golden letters on the corners…


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