Ralph Vaughan Williams came from the village of Down Ampney, where his father was a minister. His mother was the niece of Charles Darwin, the scientist who came up with the theory of evolution. When Ralph (pronounced “Rafe” in England) was a kid, he already knew he wanted to be a composer.
Vaughan Williams was dedicated to collecting and studying English folk music to preserve it for the future. Traditionally, folk songs are passed on orally — that is, someone learns a song by listening to another person sing it. Vaughan Williams traveled around England, writing down folk songs. He collected over 800 of them! Those folk songs had such a big influence on him that many of them ended up in his compositions.
Because of his interest in old tunes, Vaughan Williams was asked to revise the official English Hymnal. One of the most famous orchestra pieces Vaughan Williams composed is based on a tune from that hymnal – a tune by 16th century Brittish composer Thomas Tallis.
Among the pieces Vaughan Williams wrote were nine symphonies, and a number of concertos, including some for instruments you wouldn’t expect to be featured as soloists — harmonica and bass tuba!