How Ralph Vaughn Williams Saved My Life

by Nola Garrett

Driving my 2010 orange Honda Fit, I was on my way to the University of Tampa’s inaugural concert of their new pipe organ. I was stopped for the red light at the six lane intersection of Sunset and McMullan Booth Road. I had just slipped in my new CD of Williams “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallas” and other works written during the years he began collecting English folk songs during the early part of the 20th Century. I was happy, relaxed, and filled with anticipation.

My first brush with Ralph Vaughn Williams’s music was All Saints Sunday, 1973, in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, when I first sang what I gradually came to know as one of his most famous compositions, his hymn tune, “For All the Saints.” That majestic opening, a single deep bass, full reed organ stop, G quarter note, followed by the hymn’s melody and slow walking bass gave me shivers. I felt as if that hymn dragged me up from the violent depths of my first marriage to consider a second life. Each of the eight stanzas began the same way, and each time I found myself shivering. Still do, every time I sing it decades later.

I’ve come to think that deep bass G and that following walking bass may have acted as a sort of sounded dark light or chiaroscuro on my perception. Scientists studying perception say that the brain doesn’t just passively receive but actively reaches out. The mind with its own hopes, according to Frederick Turner in a recent essay, “The Dark Light of Domenic Cretara,” in
seeks confirmation or a check on its view of the world. Sometimes this check leads to the reinforcement of denial or depression; other times it grasps the light or trust. So, the melody would have been my light while the single deep bass G and walking bass would have been and continues to be my shadow that gives form to my light.

Because “For All the Saints” has eight verses and that authoritative, initial bass G, most church organists, including First English Lutheran Church’s cantor, Cynthia A. Pock, Obl. ECST, AAGO, will be quick to tell you, “It’s not an easy hymn to play.” The hymn should be played slowly, and both that initial G and the walking bass are scored for pedal. Truth be told, eight slowly played verses is a very long hymn either to sing or to play. Ralph Vaughn Williams, composer and church organist, certainly understood that strain, for he wrote an alternative four part harmony setting for verses 4,5, 6, and eliminated the pedal walking bass. Often these three verses are sung by the choir, and/or the 8 verses are sung alternately all, men, all, women, all, choir, all, all. Either way, it’s still an endurance test for organists. Nevertheless, on a few special occasions I’ve heard organists, including Cynthia Pock, open the hymn with an elaborate improvisation and/or end the seventh verse with a improvised key-change modulation, adding further majesty (and mystery) to the last verse!

Eventually, I wondered if other Williams compositions would effect me the same way. I sought out his recordings, read the liner notes, researched more details about his life, and his growth as an English composer. None of his other music gave me shivers, but at least I found the word that most writers used when describing much of music he wrote based on his folk song research—mysterious. Another description for shivers. I felt relieved that at least I wasn’t some sort of religious nut.

I read Simon Heffer’s Williams biography published by Northeastern University Press in 2000 and discovered Williams’ beliefs, or perhaps more precise, his doubts concerning Christianity. At the time Williams wrote his hymn tune for William W. How’s text, “For All the Saints,” he also helped revise the 1906 English, all the while forthrightly acknowledging his agnosticism, even refusing to take communion at the church where he served as organist. I respect Ralph Vaughn Williams for his honest doubt which I think may well be another source of the mystery pervading his compositions. Heffer describes his listening impressions of the first English folk-song Williams collected:

…on first hearing the tune, it strikes the listener as though he has known it all his life. It has the strain of heroic melancholy and profound peace that is religiose without being religious…stripped of sentiment and romanticism. It echoes and represents the mysticism that would become a dominant strain in Vaughn Williams character, a substitute for orthodox religion that would increasingly inform his music.

Yes! What a joy it was to find in someone else’s words a description of what you’ve been shivering, feeling, needing to understand. Thank you, Simon Heffer.

So. Just as I settled back into my driver’s seat to the first orchestral measure of “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” I heard/felt a loud, dull bang-quick wham as my car was rear-ended & I closed my eyes & felt my seat belt tighten & felt the back of my head flap back into the padded headrest & next my head whacked left & hurt hard. I opened my eyes, heard Ralph Vaughn Williams’s music still playing, and I turned off the ignition so my car wouldn’t catch fire. I saw that my driver’s side air bag had deployed like a sad balloon. Two teen age boys were opening my car door and saying “I’m sorry!” “I’m sorry.”

I found my purse still sitting beside me. I grabbed it as the two boys and an older man helped me out of my car which I noticed was now pointing toward home. My head didn’t hurt as much, but my calves stung. And, I knew I was alive and walking to the berm. Minutes later the EMTs from the fire station I had passed a half mile back were paying no attention to the teenage boys, but were taking my blood pressure, asking me my age, counting my heart beat. My blood pressure was 130 over 80. “A little high for me,” I told them, though they assured me “It’s damn good.”

Turns out that the two teen age boys—brothers— were driving at least 60 mph the blue Toyota truck that rear ended me. They never looked up until their cell phones flew from their hands into what must have become part of the pile of glass, metal, and plastic someone swept to the roadside. Also, seems that my car was not only rear ended, but also then thrown into a six inch steel pole on the driver’s side and turned around 180 degrees.

In my wallet I found my Florida driver’s licence, owner’s card, insurance card, copied the boy’s info, used my cell to phone my husband to come take me home, answered the police’s questions, thanked the two witnesses who stayed more than a hour to talk with the police. They had been driving separate cars they swerved out of the way of the heedless brothers.

Magically, a tow truck arrived. The driver handed me his card, then wenched my hunched Honda Fit crookedly up as if he were hoisting an very old man onto a hospital bed. I didn’t cry, but I wished I could. My legs still stung, though my opaque hose were intact. It would be more than 3 months before all my many, many bruises disappeared.

A few days later, I drove a rental Kia Soul to the tow yard to remove my personal effects and licence plate from what had now officially been deemed my totaled Honda. The guys at the yard immediately demanded my ID, checked their list, then stepped back, saying “You’re alive? That’s a car in a world of hurt! When we opened the hood we found that the engine mounts had snapped. The engine was sitting loose, sideways in the engine compartment.”

The guys walked me to my car, removed my crumpled licence plate, helped me retrieve most of my stuff. Strangely, I sit in my dead car’s driver’s seat. The keys hang in the ignition. On a whim I push the CD eject button and out slides “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” Though it’s still a mystery to me why my car’s battery powering that CD player gave my music back to me, I relaxed. I felt the same happiness I had felt a few days earlier when I first placed Williams’ CD into that machine.

I am grateful for Honda’s engineering that keeps the passenger compartment secure during almost any accident, which is why I made the two brothers’ insurance company buy me an new orange 2011 Honda Fit. I also believe that because I was so relaxed, Ralph Vaughn Williams saved my life. Twice.

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