Inside Southbank Sinfonia

An orchestra like no other, based in the heart of London

Shakespeare in Music: Vaughan Williams’ lost music

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Richard Sandland
Music Operations Manager, Royal Shakespeare Company

Alongside getting new RSC productions on-stage, Richard has spent years delving into the company’s remarkable archive and rediscovering scores from plays over the past century. Now, Southbank Sinfonia will bring a selection back to life in a special concert.

It’s nice to report that the RSC had, a hundred years ago, one of the undisputed masters of what is now known as the second English musical renaissance working here. Sir Frank Benson’s productions of 1913-14 featured Ralph Vaughan Williams as arranger, composer and conductor. The picture below shows him at pretty much this time. He was the first classical composer that I, as a callow youth, became really interested in; I was a tuba player and he wrote a Tuba Concerto – yes, I know! Why?

RVW portrait

Vaughan Williams was a local man to the RSC, being born in Down Ampney, near Cirencester, only about 40 miles or so from Stratford-upon-Avon. He was descended on his mother’s side from Josiah Wedgwood; Charles Darwin was a great uncle, and so his genes contained potential for that combination of inquiry and art that marks out a formidable creative mind.


Images used by permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

A page from RVW’s score for us for Richard II from 1913. I love that we know exactly where this was used in the show – it’s “to bring Richard on”, but, more precisely, it’s “when Mowbray sits” – RVW would have been watching the stage and cueing the orchestra.  Also, the trumpet part says “play when no Horns” – did RVW know who was turning up each night to play?

In 1905 he had arranged and conducted music for the Stratford Revels where, according to his biographer, “Ben Jonson’s Masque Pan’s Anniversary was performed in the Bancroft gardens”, this being the first performance of that piece since 1625. What I would do to find THAT music! His technique was then refined by having lessons with Ravel in 1908, and by 1913, when he received an invitation to meet with Sir Frank Benson, he had written his first mature works: A Sea Symphony, to words by Walt Whitman, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and was engaged in writing his London Symphony. He had also, in 1906, edited the English Hymnal.

So it was with a mixture of the ancient and the new with which Vaughan Williams arrived in Stratford for the 1913 Festival, which ran from 21 April to 14 May. Sir Frank – who I get the impression was formidable – “was obviously neither pleased not interested by the new music”. It wasn’t particularly new, though, being a mixture of folk-tunes and plainchant, with hymn tunes occasionally too, but apparently Sir Frank reverted to his “usual” music as soon as RVW departed, the Benson Company being “passionately wedded to their conventional incidental music”. I think they generally did revivals, so the 1913 Richard II would have been much the same as that from 1896, with 11 revivals in between.

Sir Frank Benson

Sir Frank Benson standing outside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

According to Benson’s biographer, J.C. Trewin, “The orchestra pit was very deep in the Memorial Theatre in Stratford such that if Vaughan Williams was high enough to see the stage, he could not see the orchestra. Conversely, if he could see the orchestra, he could not see the stage.” Much scope for comedy moments there!  Also of concern was “Benson’s utter disregard for music – except as something that had to be there” – this was an irritation, according to Ursula Vaughan Williams, but Ralph was delighted by the friendliness of the company and the glamour that went with it, and was deeply interested in all facets of the Production, even singing a plainchant psalm himself when the offstage singers were in the wrong place.

RVW - Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre showing the orchestra pit where RVW would have worked.

Later in life, he wrote a full-scale opera on The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he called Sir John in Love, and he wrote music for radio productions of Shakespeare. But Vaughan Williams never came back to Stratford and his music for Richard II hasn’t been performed in public since.

Southbank Sinfonia performs Vaughan Wiliams’ Richard II alongside concert premieres of other Shakespearean scores on Tuesday 20 September at St John’s Smith Square, London. Joining the orchestra are a cast of actors, including Olivier Award-winner Patricia Hodge and BAFTA-nominated David Threlfall, to set the scene with Shakespeare’s evocative prose. The concert is presented in collaboration with the RSC.

Find out more here.

Follow Richard on Twitter here.


Author: southbanksinfonia

Every year, Southbank Sinfonia brings together 33 young musicians for an experience that will change their lives. Find out about our upcoming concerts, including our Free Rush Hour Series, at

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