When Clarion met Vaughan Williams

84adf861-5f6c-47eb-8ae2-8dd122aad5f1 Ralph Vaughan Williams

In 1945 Katharine Thomson wrote to Ralph Vaughan Williams, a Cambridge friend of her father, and asked him if Clarion could perform excerpts from his opera ‘Sir John in Love’. She mentioned in particular one member of Clarion, a baritone called Martin Marshall. Vaughan Williams replied, saying “I would like to meet your baritone”.

In August, Katharine, Martin and his wife Elsie went to Vaughan Williams’ house in Dorking where he gave them a warm welcome. In the composer’s study, accompanied by him on the piano, Martin sang Vaughan Williams’ beautiful song ‘Silent Noon’.

‘Sir John in Love’ was first performed by Clarion in its entirety in March 1949 at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. The director was Tom Harrison, Regional Director of the Midlands Arts Council. The opera was conducted by Professor Anthony Lewis from the University of Birmingham.

from The Birmingham Post 19th March 1949:

Composer Goes To Rehearsal: Vaughan Williams in Birmingham

With no fanfares of trumpets such as might fittingly have heralded the arrival in the city of our greatest composer to hear his own music rehearsed by Birmingham’s Clarion singers, Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams was welcomed here yesterday by his friend Tom Harrison, Midland Director of the Arts Council.
Undeterred by the most wintery of days the 77-year-old composer had left his Dorking home in the early morning and when he emerged from the 1.40p.m. train at Birmingham his natural bear-like proportions were made more massive still; for his grizzled head was alone visible above a mass of overcoats and rugs.
Refusing any rest Dr Williams went straight to the University annexe for the first orchestral rehearsal of his rarely heard opera “Sir John in Love” which is to have its first Midland hearing from the Clarion Singers in the Midland Institute on March 18 and 19.
He listened to this until 5.30 and after a quick cup of tea returned for the cast’s rehearsal which he followed until 9 o’clock.
“He could hardly be dragged away” said Mr Harrison today.
Asked his opinion on the reading of the work, which he followed on the score, Dr. Williams said: “It is such a long time since I heard it myself that your reading is probably better than mine. I enjoyed the experience enormously.”
This was the first visit to Birmingham by the composer since he came to hear Elgar’s work: “The Kingdom” in 1898, but his has been a familiar figure at Worcester meetings of the Three Choirs.

see also: Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1895-1958
edited by Hugh Cobbe



  1. Reblogged this on Gogwit's Blog and commented:
    A fascinating insight into an all but forgotten event. Vaughan Williams is among my favourite composers and, in common with other 20th century British composers, generally overlooked by the British. I guess it is an example of our tendency to affect a snobbish self-effacement. It doesn’t seem to be shared by the rest of the cultured on this planet.


  2. Martin and Elsie Marshall were our parents and the story of them travelling to Vaughan Williams’ home by train with Katharine Thomson is part of family folklore. They found him welcoming and informal, dressed in tweeds ‘rather like an old farmer’. After Dad had sung ‘Silent Noon’ RVW indicated several points in the song which with hindsight he would have written differently. Frustratingly we have no way of knowing which parts of the song he was referring to.

    One interesting difference is that we remember being told by Katharine Thomson that when she asked to visit RVW with Mum and Dad, in his reply he wrote ‘I should like to meet your railwayman’ rather than ‘your baritone’. We don’t know which version is the accurate one and the actual letter will now be in an archive somewhere.
    We have an idea also that it could have been Katharine who accompanied the song, rather than RVW himself. Again we have no way of verifying this.

    Apparently when RVW visited Clarion for the rehearsals of ‘Sir John in Love’ he had recently been ill with ‘flu, but wrote later that he had found Birmingham an ideal place in which to recover.
    Jane and Katharine (nee Marshall)


  3. As a 9 year old I remember playing robin, sir john’s non- singing pageboy, in this production. My mother, Avis Clarke, was in the chorus and I was even given the honour of presenting the composer with some flowers (although apparently he refused them being rather self-effacing, but I don’t remember that!) I also have a memory of us performing at a training college in Stratford. Anyway it started me off in a career in theatre which has lasted to the present day!
    Alan Clarke


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