A Cambridge Mass by Ralph Vaughan Williams: A History, Context, and Analysis
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Ralph Vaughan Williams is recognized as being one of England’s most prolific and nationalistic composers of the early 20th century, incorporating such nationalistic elements as English folksong, imagery of English pastoralism, and Tudor music. Nevertheless, Vaughan Williams’s mature style familiar to both scholars and fans did not begin to take shape until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1899, Vaughan Williams completed a mass as his doctoral music composition, later known as A Cambridge Mass.1 The 1890s was a time of musical development, inspiration, and education for Vaughan Williams. This mass, written for double chorus, four vocal soloists, and orchestra, is an example of his musical development at the end of the nineteenth century along with some foreshadowing elements of his mature style. Predating A Sea Symphony (1909), his other massive choral work and possibly his most well known, A Cambridge Mass remained hidden in the Cambridge University Library for 111 years until scholar and conductor Alan Tongue discovered it in 2007.
This thesis will discuss Vaughan Williams’s educational background and influences during the 1890s by examining biographies, his autobiography, personal letters, documentaries, and other secondary literature in relation to A Cambridge Mass in order to fully understand which composers and teachers and what compositional techniques influenced Vaughan Williams. In the first chapter, drawing from articles, reviews, and interviews of Tongue and details surrounding the background of this piece, I will describe Tongue’s discovery, editing process, and performance history. Finally, I will investigate the similarities and differences between this early work and his later style, highlighting musical examples of his early influences in the second chapter and the hints of Vaughan Williams’s mature style in the mass along with the conclusion in the final chapter. Also, the third chapter will address the significance of this early work of Vaughan Williams while discussing which scholars and musicians have been studying and performing this work and others who have not been researching and performing such early Vaughan Williams compositions as A Cambridge Mass.