from Vaughan Williams, Ralph, 1872-1958 to Welsh Folk Song Society

Letter No. VWL5214

Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to the Welsh Folk Song Society

Letter No.: VWL5214



The influence of folk song

The cheaper types of journalist are fond of exercising their so-called wit on the Folk Song movement in Great Britain. These writers willingly admit thatin every other country it is right and proper that composers should base their music on the songs of their own people, – but in Britain – no. And for a label they have invented the dreadful word, folky. The composers who admit the use of their own folk songs are considered merely parochial. Every artistic movement however how universal it may ultimately become must start with its own country. Shakespare, Bunyan, and Constable are known and admired all over the world, but that would not be the case unless they had started with their own country, their own customs and their own history.

Young men who go abroad when only half fledged, and come back with a smattering of a foreign musical language which they only half understand are dooed to failure. Of course the Folk Song movement has had its camp followers, composers who think that by introducing one or two British Folk Songs into a strange mixture of Tchaikovsky, Brahms or Stravinsky, according to the age of the composer, they are writing “national” music.  Those musicians who try to imitate a foreign musical language before they know their own can never achieve anything vital; they have forgoteen their own language and have not mastered that of any other country. I do not want to be narrow minded about this. We do not want our music to be a backwater, but to be part of the mainstream. Therefore, let our composers, by all means go to foreign countries, and rub shoulders with their fellow musicians there and compare notes; but, before that, let them make sure of their own selves, then, – to quote a well known tag, they cannot be false to any man.

Our folk songs have for the moment ceased to find favour with the younger generation of our composers. As Gilbert Murray once wrote ” a genius is at the same time an heir of tradition, and a rebel against it”. This rebellious instinct is to the fore at the moment. But these young rebels, whether they like it or not, cannot help speaking their own musical language anymore than they can help using words used by Shakespeare and Milton.

R. Vaughan Williams

President, International Folk Music Council
President, English Folk Dance and Song Society