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Darwin's Family: Vaughan Williams - the Man and his Music
06 Feb 2023

My Shrewsbury reviewer Andrew Petch enjoyed an afternoon focused on Charles Darwin’s family at the naturalist's former childhood home on The Mount – Ted Maidment gave a talk on the life and music of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Darwin's great nephew, and music was provided by John Moore (piano) Alex Postlethwaite (violin) and Jane Park (viola). Pictures by Annabel Moeller.

Shrewsbury has celebrated its most famous son, Charles Darwin, with a festival for the last 20 years. This year’s DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival saw an event located in Darwin’s house for the first time 'Charles Darwin's Family...Vaughan Williams; the Man and his Music'. 

Ted Maidment gave a talk on the music and life of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ a great nephew of Darwin.  He set the scene for RVW’s family history; not aristocratic but a line of profound thinkers - after all, the Lunar Society of which Darwin was a member, must have been one of the most formidable intellectual gatherings in English history. Later, the family (especially Aunt Hettie) ridiculed Ralph’s ambition to be a musician; how glad we are that she was wrong!

The talk emphasised the view that RVW was not merely a great composer but a great man, a complex personality who saw no need to explain his music from a programmatic perspective but always had the whole community in mind when composing. This composing life extended from the late Victorian era to the reign of the second Elizabeth and never descended into nostalgia. He was not a Christian yet had profound respect for many manifestations of Christianity, whether the magnificent architecture of the great cathedrals or the music of the Tudor composers.

Ted was especially moving when he described RVW’s enlisting as an ambulance orderly in 1914, when he was in his forties! He was also involved at the end of World War 2 with work which led to the establishment of the Arts Council.

The event was nicely rounded off with fine performances of two beautiful compositions by Vaughan Williams; viola player Jane Park and pianist John Moore played a Romance for viola and piano which was discovered after the composer’s death in 1958, although it is believed to have been written around 1914. The resonant lower register of the viola was proof of the work’s darker side. Jane’s husband Alex Postlethwaite then joined John Moore for a fine performance of; The Lark Ascending, possibly RVW’s best known work. A truly sublime ending to an event which surely sent many of us off to listen again to the enormous output of one of the greatest of 20th century composers.  

A social time with tea and cake included an invitation to visit the room in which Charles Darwin was born on 12th February 1809 and also to see some of the craft businesses functioning in the restored parts of the house. Glyn Jones, the current owner of the house, deserves thanks for this generous gesture.

Guests at the talk