His compositions included operas, chamber music and symphonies, and The Lark Ascending has been named the nation’s favourite piece of classical music.[i]
Yet the piano on which Ralph Vaughan Williams composed these masterpieces, and which has been glimpsed only in family photographs, has been unseen by the public.
Now, thanks to a private donor, visitors can see Vaughan Williams’ piano on display at Leith Hill Place, his childhood home in Surrey, which he gave to the National Trust in 1945.
The piano, a Broadwood [ii] with a model name of ‘Honeysuckle’, dates from 1903 and was purchased secondhand by Vaughan Williams from Broadwood in 1905. It was delivered to his Chelsea address, 13 Cheyne Walk, and went with him years later to his Dorking home.
He kept the instrument close to hand through his most productive and important years as a composing tool for The Lark Ascending in 1914 through to later works such as his Piano Concerto, Five Tudor Portraits, Symphonies 1 – 9, film music for ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, Folk Songs of the Four Seasons and An Oxford Elegy. The piano remained in the family for many years until now and has undergone repairs prior to coming to Leith Hill Place, including a new tuning plank and re-stringing.
Gabrielle Gale, National Trust Manager for Leith Hill Place said: “We are thrilled that an instrument so key to Vaughan Williams’ life and work now has its permanent home at Leith Hill Place and can be seen and enjoyed by our visitors. It is quite an unassuming instrument, said to suit the character of the man [iii] and it sat in the composer’s study where he used it daily to try out musical ideas, so it is a ‘workhorse’ rather than a concert piano.
“Although the piano would not have originally been at Leith Hill Place, we felt it was the best home for the instrument since Vaughan Williams’ later Dorking home is no longer standing. In keeping with the spirit of the composer, who believed that music should be enjoyed by everyone, the piano will be played on certain days and for special events at the house.”
In addition to its famous association with Vaughan Williams, Leith Hill Place was also the home of his grandparents, Josiah Wedgwood III (of the ceramics company) and Caroline (née Darwin) from 1847. The naturalist Charles Darwin, his great-uncle, conducted experiments in the grounds.
Gabrielle Gale adds: “Set up high on the hill with sweeping views of the Surrey countryside, you can imagine the outlook from Leith Hill Place inspiring the young composer. The house is largely unfurnished, but has an informal atmosphere where visitors can really feel at home, and it will be greatly enriched by having the composer’s piano here. On the occasions when it is played, I am sure visitors will relish hearing the same tones from it that Vaughan Williams heard when he first tried out those now famous works.
“We’d like to express heartfelt thanks to the donor of this important gift and for the ongoing support of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust for use of images, Surrey Performing Arts Library, Leith Hill Musical Festival and the Wedgwood family, many of whom still live locally.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piano is on display at Leith Hill Place from 4 March 2016. The house is open 4 March to 31 October 2016, Friday to Monday 11am to 5pm.
For more information visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/leith-hill-place
[i] Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending was voted Britain’s favourite piece of classical music in 2014 and 2015 in polls of more than 100,000 people. Vaughan Williams was inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith and his first version for violin and piano was written in 1914. Some six years later he completed the more familiar orchestral version.
[ii] Broadwood and Sons is a well-known London English piano manufacturer, founded in 1728 by Burkat Shudi and continued after his death in 1773 by John Broadwood. The company holds the Royal Warrant as manufacturer of pianos to Queen Elizabeth II. The family has links to Capel in Surrey and the Broadwood archive is in Dorking Museum.
Vaughan Williams’ study piano was made in 1903 and then hired out to Alexandra House, the student hostel for the Royal College of Music from 1903 – 5. It was then purchased by the composer direct from Broadwood and was ‘second hand’ because of the hire. It was one of 6 practice pianos hired to Alexandra House. He paid £42, less 10% discount. There was a note to the porters that there were 5 flights of stairs to take it up at Cheyne Walk!
After the composer’s death, his widow Ursula Vaughan Williams gave the piano to one of his students. Later, when she acquired another piano, it passed to Ursula’s niece, who kept it until 2015 and gifted it to the National Trust.
[iii] Vaughan Williams refused a knighthood at least once, and declined the post of Master of the King’s Music after Elgar’s death. The one state honour he accepted was the Order of Merit in 1935, which confers no title: he preferred to remain Dr Vaughan Williams.