VW, DJ and me – a reflection. (25.11.21)


VW is indicative of Ralph Vaughan-Williams, a biography of whom, by Keith Alldritt, I am currently reading and much enjoying. I have known and enjoyed the more familiar parts of his oeuvre for many years, and it is both fascinating to put that music into the contact of his life and eye and ear opening to discover the many works that I have not previously heard. VW was, it seems, a self confessed agnostic, although much of his music has a religious / spiritual element including settings for many hymns and some far more substantial “ecclesiastical” works – “Sancta Civitas” and Donna Nobis Pacem” for instance.

His lifetime included both World Wars of course, and his 6th Symphony in particular seems to have been a response to the horrors of the second. At times it seems to have shades of Shostakovich 7, the Leningrad, and then in its final movement seems to come to a mystic, frightening, perhaps desolate conclusion. Alldritt quotes Wilfrid Mellers, the music critic, who suggests: “the epilogue is perhaps the ultimate auralisation of agnosticism, telling us that the Unknown Region which the hopeful young VW had set out to explore, is not a metaphysical ‘other world’ but is unknown and always will be, simply because it is unknowable. The epilogue discovers that in the unknown region there must be nowhere: a fact offering occasion for neither hope nor regret. The difficult faith of the Fifth Symphony is relinquished; man is alone, in the dark cold and empty desolation. Acceptance brings to this strange music a serene insecurity; a courageous testament of our frightful century ….”

I think I almost understand what he is saying and can almost hear his meaning in the music. Interpreting music is a subjective business to some perhaps quite large extent. Can we know what VW intended? – does that matter? – is the power of great music that it can evoke different things in different listeners and all of those be valid? Alldritt concludes the chapter thus: “The rich and deep complexity of certain passages in Ralph’s art needs to be better recognised. Here, in the concluding movement of the Sixth Symphony, is one of the finest examples.”

My mind makes a connection with DJ, who is David Jenkins, erstwhile Bishop of Durham and, in his time, one of the most misunderstood and maligned Bishops that the CofE has ever appointed. I was privileged to meet him several times during the years of his retirement, and know him to have been a humble, gentle seeker after God who delighted in his faith in the God who is seen in Jesus, and did so with his brain thoroughly engaged. I recently re-read his partial autobiography “the Calling of a Cuckoo”, and found it very helpful in understanding and interpreting my own spiritual sense and instinct just now. He of course functioned at an entirely different intellectual level to me, but I can relate to his frustration at the CofE and his notion, often referred to in the book, of “simply believing in God”. I take that phrase to mean that the central notion of accepting the existence of, and the reality of the love of One who is beyond our mundane existence is what really matters. The rest – doctrine, creeds, ecclesiology – is peripheral, and is not to be seen as essential to or controlling of faith. These things may be helpful to individuals or indeed “the Body”, but are basically of human origin and thus fallible at best.

So I rejoice in the music of VW (and many others!) and I find in it what I find in it, not necessarily what others tell me I should find I it: in an oddly parallel way I find that I can rejoice in my faith in the God who is seen in Jesus, and celebrate it in my way, which only sometimes these days coincides with what “the church” tells me I should do, and so feel freer as a Christian, living with my doubts.

Changing the subject at least a little, we went for a walk this morning in our favourite Leeds Park, “Golden Acre”. I made just these few photographs, firstly of this lovely passage of trees beyond the lake, with the elegant Silver Birches standing out as bar lines in the melody of the woods. Then of fallen and frozen leaves, the touch of frost lifting the autumnal colours.

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