England’s Green & Useful Land: Vaughan Williams, music & the land question

Painting of a green landscape with two figures walking in the foreground, and a distant church building
Wide English Landscape (n.d) Thomas Gainsborough

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ use of pastoral idioms, together with his folksong collecting, his advocacy for ‘national music’ and his interest in amateur music-making, is typically understood within the vaunted trinity of nation—landscape—the people. It was this collection of associations, as well as his ambivalence toward musical modernism, that led him to appear reactionary in the eyes of late-twentieth-century critics. Much work has been done in recent years to counter this view of the composer, highlighting his radicalism with respect to form and tonality, and his long-running musical activism. Yet an aspect of his thinking that has received less attention is his commitment to a late-Victorian form of radical liberalism—a set of ideas that became increasingly difficult to defend and adapt in the years after the First World War.

This paper aims to situate Vaughan Williams within a liberal milieu by placing him alongside other radical liberals of his generation—including his close friends G. M. Trevelyan and E. M. Forster—and exploring their attempts to adapt their liberal commitments to the post-War political situation. The paper will focus on the activism of this group with respect to the preservation of the countryside. These activities are sometimes viewed as part of an interwar attempt at national recuperation through the association of landscape with Englishness, but they were also an extension of older debates about the redistribution and efficient use of land, within the new context of urban sprawl and middleclass leisure. I will consider a set of liberal ideas about how land can be made useful, in conjunction with Vaughan Williams’ ideas about how music can be made useful—specifically with respect to his music for propaganda films—as a joint expression of the internal struggles of radical liberals of his generation between the wars.

Date & time

Tue 20 Apr 2021, 1pm


Online Event


Dr Sarah Collins

Event series


HAL Administration


Updated:  13 April 2021/Responsible Officer:  Head, Centre/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications