‘Complex and Disturbing’

‘Oh Thou Transcendent’
The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Tony Palmer Films

If hearing the name Ralph Vaughan Williams makes you feel all warm inside, or if you associate him largely with the majestic settings of “For All the Saints” and “Come Down, O Love Divine,” be warned: the British documentary ‘Oh Thou Transcendent’ is not video comfort food. Running nearly two and a half hours, it presents Vaughan Williams as a generous but also tormented soul, and begins on a foreboding note even in describing his hometown of Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. A former neighbor describes Down Ampney and its parish church as stark, miserable and pathetic.

Biographer Stephen Johnson believes that Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” peers into death and contemplates the possibility “that there is no meaning, there is no answer, that there will be no vision at the moment of death that explains our life to us. … The unknown region may just be emptiness or nothingness.” Johnson adds: “What a complex and disturbing artist he is — a man who wrote some of the most deeply unsettling music of our time.” The National Orchestra of Hungarian Radio, conducted by Tamás Vásáry, then plays Vaughan Williams’s “Fourth Symphony.” Vásáry, with a haircut and grimaces reminiscent of the “standup tragedian” Brother Theodore, makes the despair palpable.

When reviewing some of the music inspired by the composer’s experiences as a soldier in World War I, director Tony Palmer includes footage from more recent conflagrations. We see a man burning alive, and the corpse of a young boy. No overly fine point is omitted from this segment. Nevertheless, there are less taxing moments. A disparate cast of artists, including Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys, the acclaimed solo guitarist Richard Thompson, and conductor André Previn, speak of Vaughan Williams with clear affection.

Composer Michael Tippett remembers declining an opportunity to study with Vaughan Williams because of youthful arrogance but coming to adore both the man and his work. “I loved him for his generosity and as a human being,” Tippett says. “I think now that through him and through others, but especially through him, we were made free.”

One segment records the fierce resistance to The English Hymnal with Tunes (1907), for which Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw were music editors. The Most Rev. Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, condemned the hymnal for its sympathetic treatment of Anglo-Catholic theology, and urged that dioceses not adopt it. The church adopted it anyway.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, in turn, praises Vaughan Williams for freeing the Church of England from Victorianism. “I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to canonize agnostics,” Williams says, laughing freely, “but for his contribution, I think, we owe him a great deal.”

Douglas LeBlanc


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