The start of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ career was long and slow, and it was not until the publication of his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, together with The London Symphony of 1914, that he began to gain recognition from the public. Even his sometime teacher of composition, Henry Wood, had commented: ‘That foolish young man, Ralph Vaughan Williams... he was so hopelessly bad at it’. The difficulty, as Vaughan Williams lamented later in life, was his ‘amateurish technique’ and his dissatisfaction with the general state of the English music scene. Struggling to carve a niche for himself and to discover his own musical style, Vaughan Williams set about collecting as many of the country’s native folksongs as he could find, transcribing and preserving them as part of what became an extensive personal collection.
Over time, these songs came to permeate his own music, making him popular both with English audiences and with composers looking for fresh inspiration in their own work. Even towards the end of his composing career, Vaughan Williams was still finding creative stimulation from these folk materials and in 1953 he admitted: ‘I have so much music in my head I know I will never have time to write it down.’ But much to the nation’s surprise, instead of shying away from public life in his final years, Vaughan Williams seemed to launch himself into composition with renewed vigour, producing three new symphonies, a tuba concerto and several song cycles – among other works.