The posthumous fate of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) has not always been a kind one. After his death, his music passed through a prolonged period of being deeply unfashionable. Stodgy, tweedy Vaughan Williams--who could get into that?! But, like Elgar, whose music is also cast in a stuffy, stereotypically "British" light, there is much more to Vaughan Williams than one might think.
First, the man was a superb melodist. He was not a mere tunesmith, to be sure, but crafted works that are primarily conceived in terms of melodic development, and this makes his work immediately appealing. Second, he was a highly original thinker who used his colossal technique (he had a doctorate in composition and studied with Ravel) for surprisingly modern ends. His music can at times sound like a mixture of Bach and Debussy, but it is always unmistakably Vaughan Williams. He had a penchant for modal counterpoint, and his streams of parallel chords place his work squarely in the 20th century.
Vaughan Williams' unique talent for scoring is evident throughout this excellent recording of his 7th and 8th symphonies. The "Sinfonia antartica" is based upon a film score he supplied for a film about the explorer Robert Scott. It is by turns brooding and wistful--an ideal introduction to this magnificent composer. Symphony No. 8 is a more eclectic affair, brighter in temperament overall, but a rewarding example of the surprises that lurk around every corner of RVW's work.
Was he the greatest symphonist of the 20th century? The jury's still out. He certainly created a body of symphonic work that is second to none in its richness, diversity, and consistency. Mahler, Sibelius, and Shostakovich are usually considered the most important symphonists of the last century, but for those who seek other fare, you can't do better than Vaughan Williams.