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Book Review

Mistress and Muse

Mistress and Muse by Tennant

Ursula – The Second Mrs. Vaughan Williams

A Biography by Janet Tennant
Albion Music Ltd. 2017. 393 pages
B&W illustrations. Notes, Index, Select bibliography
ISBN-10: 0995628408
ISBN-13: 978-0-9956284-0-3
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When Ralph Vaughan Williams proposed marriage to Ursula Wood on January 12, 1953, following the death on May 10, 1951 of his invalid wife of many years, the occasion he chose appropriately followed a performance of Tristan und Isolde. They had been intimate lovers for fifteen years, since a time when both were married. He was eighty and she was forty-one when they were married, and would have another five years together, during which they each would be very creative, he writing more symphonies (the Ninth was to be recorded the very day he died), as well as the great Christmas cantata Hodie, the libretto of which was put together by her.

Ralph and Ursula met over an arranged lunch in 1938, at which they each began to fall madly in love. She had a poem, "Epithalamion" which she thought might suitably be put to music (It eventually was and a version of it is available as a recording) and she asked an associate of both of them to urge RVW to invite her to lunch to discuss it. She did not grow up musical, much the contrary – she hated piano lessons and was dismissed from her school choir because she was unable to sing. But she did like to dance and would be overwhelmed by Vaughan Williams' Job, A Masque for Dancing. She also had theatre training at the Old Vic. She was primarily a poet (the best English woman poet since Christina Rossetti, someone later wrote to the Times). She was to publish several volumes of poems, mostly under the name Ursula Wood, and later as Ursula Vaughan Williams; as well as a fine biography of RVW, under that title; an autobiography; and three novels, in addition to mainly short publications. She was librettist not only for Vaughan Williams, but also for other composers. Her poetic attainments were helpful to Vaughan Williams; although he had set Walt Whitman as early as the Sea Symphony, he was entirely unacquainted with Emily Dickinson. Tennant includes a great deal of Ursula's poetry throughout her book, demonstrating both its quality and the feelings she expressed in the poems. Luckily, neither her husband nor his wife read the ones which most reflected her love for Ralph.

What drew Ralph and Ursula so strongly together for the rest of his life? If I may borrow part of a phrase – not his own – Heine headed one of his works with, "She was loveable and he loved her…" The second-hand Heine quote continued, "but he was not loveable and she did not love him." But clearly RVW was loveable and no doubt charming; he attracted other young women and one was evidently so jealous on account of his not marrying her that her written communications to him after the marriage left off Ursula's name. For her part, Tennant tells us, Ursula was jealous of Ralph's wife Adeline (rather outrageously under the circumstances, one might well think); but Adeline, who may not have been fully aware of the longstanding affair, was not jealous of Ursula, but viewed her rather like a frequently visiting daughter, and encouraged her to accompany Ralph to musical events which she was unable to do herself. One may infer that others were extraordinarily discreet about what they might have tended to assume about the couple. The nearly forty-year difference in their ages was no doubt a factor there.

Ursula was born in Malta, the not entirely welcome daughter of a high-ranking British military officer; both her parents wanted a son. They did have one next; he died a hero in a World War II battle. There was a second daughter. Ursula was not close to any of her family, though she eventually had many friends. She married another military officer, who also died during the Second World War, though not in battle, rather of a sudden heart attack, brutally announced in a telegram to his widow. Her widow's pension was very small (though not quite the pittance allowed by Social Security in the U.S.) and it was supplemented by her earnings as writer; later she was paid a salary as personal assistant to RVW.

Meeanwhile, Ursula's father and husband were each assigned to many, many locations by their superiors, the father even to Canada at one point. The husband's absences were surely among the strains on his marriage to Ursula, as they drifted apart, in addition to their increasing incompatibility of interests.

Ursula spent much time at Dorking, where the Vaughan Williamses had a residence, but preferred living in London, first in a modest apartment, later, after marriage to Ralph, in a grand mansion. There was usually another resident. After Ralph's death she downsized.

The narrative here keeps pace with RVW's musical output, with details about major first performances. There is considerable mention of other musicians, notably his friend Finzi; also Holst, Bernard Herrmann, Bax, Britten, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Dame Myra Hess, and others including the major British conductors of the time. At one performance in the Royal Albert Hall Adrian Boult had both RVW and his librettist stand for applause. The two also collaborated on a madrigal composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, as well as more than one opera.

Before he died, RVW created a fund to help other musicians, to which went his very considerable royalties; much later, when they reverted to Ursula, she had them transferred to the same organization, for which she was one of the trustees. She was very active in many cultural organizations for the rest of her very long life. Ralph died at eighty-five, in 1958, she at ninety-six, in 2007. Both deaths were quite sudden.

Ursula's reputation for being both kind and witty was confirmed by an incident involving a wrong spelling of her husband's name as "Vaughn" on a commemorative plaque. She headed off public embarrassment by remarking about the misspelling, "How Elizabethan!"

Tennant writes well and sustains interest throughout this highly interesting volume, which I can recommend without reservation. She is no more musical than Ursula, but no matter. Michael Kennedy published a book about RVW's music to complement and coincide with Ursula's biography, both issued by Oxford.

Physically, this book is printed on very white, heavy stock and excessively stiff paper, making the pages somewhat hard to turn or hold open; its signatures are sturdily sewn-bound. Oddly, the cloth cover lacks printing of any kind, on my copy at least; one wonders why. Inside, the larger than usual printing is very clear and easy to read, with a smaller than usual number of lines to the page.

Copyright © 2018, R. James Tobin