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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams and the art of the amateur

Within the broad family of television programs classified as “reality shows,” some of the most engaging are those that showcase amateur performance and achievement. Part of the appeal of programs like America’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, or The Great British Bake-Off lies in being able to identify with its contestants. When we experience the vicarious thrill of watching a primary school teacher execute a perfect paso doble, or a welder turn out a flawless tray of Chelsea buns, we are reminded that ordinary people, including ourselves, can harbor extraordinary abilities.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: advocate for amateurs

This was also the opinion of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), one of the twentieth century’s great champions of and advocates for amateur music-making. Ironically, despite his own outstanding achievements over the course of his sixty-year-long career—not just as a composer, but as conductor, teacher, writer, editor, folklorist, administrator, and philanthropist—his own long-standing affiliation with amateur performers led some critics (sympathetic and otherwise) to describe his own music as technically clumsy or awkward, despite all evidence to the contrary. Vaughan Williams himself was largely unbothered by such comments, not least because he felt that any professional musical culture worthy of the name rested on a foundation of widespread amateur participation. In his essay “Making Your Own Music” (1955), he lauded this “great army of humble music makers…sustaining those [professionals] above them and at the same time depending upon them for strength and inspiration.”

Vaughan Williams’s praise for amateur music-making was not mere lip service, as he spent a considerable portion of his career promoting, preserving, and producing music for and by non-professionals. Between 1903 and 1913, he collected some 800 English folk songs, many of which he arranged for concert performance or incorporated into new instrumental works, and was deeply impressed by the artistry he witnessed among their practitioners in the field. As musical editor for The English Hymnal (1906), Songs of Praise (1925), and The Oxford Book of Carols (1928), he sought to provide Christian congregations with accessible, engaging, and well-crafted tunes worthy of both their spiritual devotion and their often-modest musical abilities. During his service in the First World War, he directed multiple choirs and bands, even in the midst of active combat on the Western Front, in order to help maintain morale among his fellow soldiers. For nearly fifty years, he directed the amateur choirs of the Leith Hill Musical Competition (founded by his sister, Margaret, in 1905) in the Surrey village of Dorking, augmenting his efforts in later years with annual performances of Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions. He wrote numerous test pieces and bespoke works for amateur choral, band, and orchestral festivals throughout England. Few composers of the first rank have contributed more to amateur musicianship throughout their lifetimes than Vaughan Williams, which speaks to his dedication in making music accessible to all.

Technically, the only thing distinguishing amateur practitioners from professionals is whether they get paid to practice their talents. However, terms like “amateurish” or “professionalism” connote qualities distinct from the financial implications of amateur or professional status—namely, what might or should be expected from the modal representative of each group. Amateurs are often assumed to be less skillful, their final products lacking polish or refinement. These latter virtues are typically associated with professionalism, a term bearing a meritocratic assumption: payment comes in recognition of ability, and those who are paid are better than those who are not. Of course, such distinctions do not always hold up. Most Olympians and college athletes are obliged to hold amateur status in order to compete; conversely, many of us have firsthand experience with co-workers, bosses, or other professionals whose salaries far outstrip their actual ability or value.

Televised talent shows: inspiring or discouraging?

Competitive television shows thrive on this inherent tension between the amateur practitioner and their remarkable demonstrations of professionalism. But what implications might this carry for those watching at home? On the one hand, as Vaughan Williams argued, it could be a source of inspiration. Perhaps we too could learn magic, or enroll in a ballroom dance class, or take that cookbook off the shelf, just like the shows’ contestants do when they come home from their jobs at the end of the day. Or maybe we can see that our own talents compare favorably with those displayed on TV, giving us the confidence to share them with others. Yet the professionalism on offer can also be daunting, as Vaughan Williams addressed elsewhere in “Making Your Own Music” when discussing the importance of active musicianship among non-professionals:

Will not all this listening to superb, expert performances bring on a counsel of despair in the mind of the humble amateur, who, for example, plays the flute a little for his own amusement? Will he not feel inclined to say, “With my limited capacities, my small opportunities for practice, I cannot hope to approach the perfection which I hear. Better give up the struggle and become a merely passive listener.” If our amateur flautist thinks thus, he will have lost one of the greatest assets of his spiritual life, the vision of the ultimate realities through the making of music.

On talent programs that are carefully edited for television, we rarely see an arc of growth among participants—or if we do, it starts from an already well-developed level—and so our own early efforts in taking on a new hobby may seem, well, amateurish by comparison. This can lead to considerable soul-searching. Is it worth persevering? What do we get out of trying and failing? How can we enjoy being creative if we aren’t very good at it? In answering such questions, Vaughan Williams liked to quote his friend Gustav Holst, who “used to say that if a thing was worth doing at all then it was worth doing badly.” Reflecting on his half-century of service with the Leith Hill Musical Competition, Vaughan Williams knew full well that perseverance in the face of such challenges was the key to success:

Those who only heard the finished result [at the concert performance] knew little of the preparation period when week after week a devoted band of singers would meet in a cold but stuffy school room, half lit by two smelly oil lamps, accompanied by an astonishing machine which had once been a pianoforte. Here these hierophants struggled with music which was often in an idiom new to them, and sometimes at first incomprehensible. Occasionally the leading soprano lost her voice and could not sing, or one of the only two tenors, being the local doctor, was called out in the middle of a practice to assist at one of the joyful occasions that are so frequent in our village; leaving Mr. Smith of Kosikot to wrestle with Bach’s difficult intervals or Handel’s runs alone. And so it went on for the first few weeks. Then suddenly, as by a miracle, the music came alive and we sang on full of hope waiting for the great climax of the spring. At last it arrived. What had been a set of disintegrated units became one whole.

Vaughan Williams’s reminiscence exhorts us to take seriously our own potential as enthusiastic amateurs. The composer was fond of citing St. James in this regard: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Undertaking creative activities for their own sake opens us to discoveries and joys beyond the merely vicarious, even if limited to our local choir or garage band or painting class. As we observe Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday this year, there is no better way to celebrate than by wholeheartedly embracing his idealistic vision for amateur artistry, the first step toward establishing a truly vibrant creative culture—not just one we watch on TV.

Featured image from Vaughan Williams.

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