When encountering an unfamiliar composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams, I find myself asking the same questions: where have I heard this before? Do I know this already or am I simply imagining it?

Clear answers are offered by Eric Saylor’s groundbreaking biography, released to coincide with Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday. Saylor approaches his subject with fresh ears and a host of thoroughly researched and well-rounded insights that look set to change the discourse surrounding the composer in his anniversary year.

Writing with clarity of vision is tricky given how embedded Vaughan Williams is in British musical culture. He wore many hats in his time: symphonic composer, choral society conductor, folksong collector, hymn-tune compiler. Vaughan Williams enjoyed a combination of popularity and prestige unrivalled by many of his British contemporaries, and he remains the nation’s favourite composer, even if others might have a stronger claim to be Britain’s best.

Familiarity emanates from Vaughan Williams’s musical language; its blend of folk modality, references to the English Renaissance and austere chromaticism creates a close conversation between present and past. Vaughan Williams once remarked that he didn’t remember whether he had composed a piece or just remembered it. “I’ve not had a new musical idea since I was 30,” he would later tell the conductor Christopher Finzi.

But as Saylor’s new biography shows, Vaughan Williams was actively involved in building a tradition for the future – he did more than merely draw on the past. Where Saylor describes Vaughan Williams’s work collecting folk songs as preservationist and promotional, Vaughan Williams’s “revivalist and reformist” compilation of the New English Hymnal (confining his most hated Victorian hymns to an appendix nicknamed the Chamber of Horrors and replacing them with Tallis, Purcell, Gibbons and a lot of contemporary pieces – including some of his own) demonstrates his inclination to look afresh at traditions otherwise taken for granted. He was, according to previous biographer Michael Kennedy, “that extremely English product – the natural nonconformist with a conservative regard for the best tradition”. But regard doesn’t necessarily equate to reverence – a key duality Vaughan Williams battled with as he worked to find his own compositional voice and his own English tradition to situate it in.

The composer with his second wife and muse Ursula Vaughan Williams.
The composer with his second wife and muse Ursula Vaughan Williams. Photograph: Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

In many ways the editorial approach taken by Vaughan Williams when compiling the hymnal – looking beyond received notions of taste – was mirrored in his music, which was criticised after the second world war. As Saylor notes, a new generation of composers and critics “took issue with the music and the aesthetic values that he had long promoted, such as his continued advocacy for the relevance of folksong and a robust culture of ‘national music’ for England”.

So why are we still talking about Vaughan Williams? For one, the nature of his music makes it ripe for rediscovery. The composer’s interest in daring instrumentation and his unusual approach to form mean that many works lie outside standard performing repertoire. Take the Sinfonia Antartica for orchestra, voices, a battery of percussion and a wind machine the weirdly beautiful Flos Campi for viola, choir and ensemble; or the intense one-act opera Riders to the Sea, a difficult work to stage because of its brevity. As Saylor notes, even perennial favourite The Lark Ascending doesn’t really know what it is: it’s more virtuosic than its title – “Romance for violin and orchestra” – might suggest, but it’s not quite a concerto and it shuns an extra-musical narrative (though it’s accompanied by George Meredith’s eponymous poem from 1881). As with all artists who flout the boundaries of convention, unpacking Vaughan Williams’s work is a long and complex process – and there is still some progress to be made.

He was born in 1872 into a life of complicated privilege: “Though comfortable with the gentry, they [the Williams family] were not of it,” Saylor says. A radical while at Charterhouse school, Vaughan Williams embraced socialism while studying at Cambridge. He later became influenced by the ideas William Morris, which balanced idealism with pragmatism and helped shape his political outlook. Though disagreeing with the pacifist beliefs and trenchantly leftwing politics of fellow composers Alan Bush and Michael Tippett, Vaughan Williams publicly supported their right to voice their political opinions. He chaired the Home Office Committee for the Release of Interned Alien Musicians in 1940 despite expressing concerns about the impact an influx of Austrian and German musicians could have on English musical culture.

As a young student at the Royal College of Music in London, Vaughan Williams idolised his teacher Hubert Parry, who instructed him: “Write choral music as befits an Englishman and a democrat.” After studying with Parry and Charles Stanford in London, Vaughan Williams went to study in continental Europe, first with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897 and later in Paris with a young Maurice Ravel. Chief among his influences was Gustav Holst, a close friend with whom Vaughan Williams shared frank, critical discussions as both composers worked towards finding their respective voices.

The works composed by Vaughan Williams between the turn of the century and the first world war have come to represent the popular perception of the composer today. They include The Lark Ascending, his Sea Symphony (No 1) and London Symphony (No 2), his choral piece Towards the Unknown Region and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Described by Gloucester Cathedral’s then-organist Herbert Brewer as “queer work by an odd fellow from Chelsea”, the Fantasia was another unusually scored piece, this time for double string orchestra with string quartet.

For Vaughan Williams and his compatriots, the advent of war brought about total change, and the composer, then in his 40s, enlisted in the Territorial Force, eventually ending up as an ambulance driver in France. The Pastoral Symphony (No 3), along with the Mass in G Minor (1921) and The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1922), became key works in the idiom of 20th-century pastoralism, but Vaughan Williams’s return to lush sounds was “no simple and joyful release”, as his second wife Ursula Vaughan Williams would later emphasise. Saylor outlines the aesthetic conundrum Vaughan Williams faced at this point: “how to transform the wartime trauma that he experienced into an expression of terrible beauty that might help make a world full of loss bearable once more”.

An uncomplicated reading of that phenomenon quickly became a convenient way of hurdling its various existential and aesthetic quandaries. But that serialist Elisabeth Lutyens is remembered more for her “cowpat music” critique (attacking the pastoral idiom favoured by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Arnold Bax) than for any of her own music also shows the difficulties post-tonal music has faced in gaining a decisive foothold in British musical culture. In the routine talk of neglected figures in 20th-century British music, Lutyens surely tops the list, spurned as much for her soundworld as her gender. (Incidentally Vaughan Williams taught and supported many of the next generation of composers, including a significant number of female composers. “None of the other professors looked at us as people,” social activist Belinda Norman-Butler said. “But he did.”)Saylor’s measured contribution to our understanding of Vaughan Williams is welcome, and can only add to our understanding of the strange, interesting colours Vaughan Williams conjured, particularly in the august of his career. And for listeners looking to move beyond the familiar sound of The Lark Ascending, a good way of approaching his music afresh is by working backwards, from the Ninth Symphony’s fierce defiance and unusual sonorities (featuring three saxophones and a flugelhorn) through the eerie chill of the Sinfonia Antartica and the violent Sixth Symphony before arriving at his popular, pastoral Fifth. It’s an unfamiliar journey but a reminder that serenity didn’t come simply for this complicated composer.

By Indana