Vaughan Williams, Boult, and the BBC

Jenny Doctor

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter


In many ways, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s relationship with the BBC can be seen as ambivalent. Many of the BBC Music Department’s policies, activities and aims were anathema to him, and nowhere more than in the realm of new composition. The BBC sought to commission new works, a venture that Vaughan Williams found counterproductive; the BBC aimed to explain music to its vast body of listeners, which Vaughan Williams thought unnecessary; the BBC’s structure, and consequently its broadcasting practices, divided music into higher- and lower-brow classifications, following a discriminating principle that ran against Vaughan Williams’s beliefs in the fundamental nature of music across its entire spectrum; and most important, perhaps, the BBC’s purpose as a broadcaster promoted the musical experience as a passive pursuit for its mass recipients, negating Vaughan Williams’s encouragement of active music-making as an essential human endeavour. Nevertheless, the BBC played a vital role in Vaughan Williams’s career. Of course, it offered him the obvious benefit of a modern platform for the dissemination of his works, as it did for most living composers, British and otherwise. But, as this essay will explore, Vaughan Williams’s relationship with the BBC permeated deeper than that: the Corporation played a fundamental role in establishing his reputation and significance, both nationally and internationally. The BBC not only performed Vaughan Williams’s new works as a matter of principle and interest, but it regularly repeated works from his ‘back catalogue’, reinforcing and amplifying on a national and imperial scale the spectrum of his output, across its many styles, genres and functions. Moreover, though it is hard to quantify precisely, much of this activity and interest would seem to have stemmed from the friendship and mutual admiration that existed between Vaughan Williams and a sensitive interpreter of his works, Adrian Boult (1889–1983). Boult served as the chief decision-maker in the BBC Music Department throughout the 1930s and was conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1930 until his retirement in 1950. It was surely his influence that convinced the BBC to offer the virtual space in which Vaughan Williams would become truly known and appreciated, as the composer and his music reached across the British sphere and beyond.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9781139043243
ISBN (Print)9780521197687
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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