Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lindsay A. Lafford in 1954

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Lindsay A. Lafford
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

As a boy chorister in the choir of Hereford Cathedral, and later as a young man, I'd sung a lot of music by Vaughan Williams, much of it conducted by the great man himself. I'd been close to him at such things as formal Festival breakfasts. I'd played and conducted a lot his music, and I'd been born in a city a scant ten miles or so from the village where he had been born. But I'd never actually spoken to him.

The years wore on, and I left England to be the organist of St. John's Cathedral in Hong Kong, later to teach in America.

On a return visit to England in 1954, my wife and I were able to attend, at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral, the première performance of what was to be Vaughan Williams's last major choral work: Hodie, conducted by the composer. Hereford being, along with Worcester and Gloucester, one of the Three Choirs of the Three Choirs Festival, the chorus this day was a successor to the one with which I'd been connected for thirteen years some twenty and more years earlier. The piece was so impressive that I resolved to perform it as soon as possible with my college chorus back in Geneva, New York. Hodie is a Christmas piece, so arrangements were made to perform it as the central work in my college's Christmas Concert in 1954.

I was teaching at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The principal chorus, known as the Schola Cantorum, was a stellar mixed chorus of some sixty undergraduates with which I'd already performed several premières of British works. U.S. premières of two works by Gordon Jacob: Highways, and The New-Born King; Sir George Dyson's The Canterbury Pilgrims, and In Honor of the City; Holst's The Coming of Christ; Harold Darke's Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres.

We'd also performed the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Orff's Carmina Burana, Constant Lambert's Rio Grande and similar major works. So we prepared to provide what would be the U. S. launching of Hodie at Christmas, 1954, as assured by the New York office of the Oxford University Press.

By an interesting chance, Vaughan Williams was to be spending some time at Cornell University that Autumn as a Visiting Professor, and I thought it would be great if I could talk to the composer about the work. His visit to America was an important matter in musical circles, and demands on his time simply had to be controlled. Dr. Grout at Cornell was most sympathetic, and found a way to fit me in for an interview with the great man. Strictly limited to half an hour, I was told, and no photographs! But I was in luck: one of our public relations staff had a friend in the corresponding department at Cornell, and between them they figured out how to get away with a photo of Vaughan Williams and me together. But more of that later.

Having found the building and the room in which the composer was holding court, I found it guarded by an attendant who reminded me that I had precisely 30 minutes, and then ushered me into the room. The old gentleman was sitting on a couch beneath the long window in this study, and I took a chair in front of him. I introduced myself and began to explain my background, and how I'd performed many times under his direction at the Three Choirs Festivals, and why I was there. But there was a problem: he was having trouble with his hearing aid. He began to fuss with it, fumbling with the earpiece, which then fell out and hung on its cord. He bent over to retrieve it, and the battery unit fell out of his pocket on to the floor. After more than five minutes of this — precious time lost out of my allotted thirty minutes — he gave up on the unreliable modern invention, and produced from his jacket pocket an ear trumpet, obviously kept available as a backup for emergencies. With this gadget stuck in his right ear, he turned that side towards me, and from then on our interview proceed as I shouted into this ancient piece of technology. Vaughan Williams was 82 at this time, but seemed to me to look and act older than that. Of course, I was only 42!

We got along well enough, though I think he'd missed most of my preamble, and didn't seem to quite know who I was. He asked me if I found the piano reduction of the orchestral accompaniment to be satisfactory, and mentioned the name of the man who'd made the reduction. We discussed other aspects of the work, and then I started to put into operation the plan whereby this meeting could be immortalized. I moved over to sit next to RVW just as the clock reached the end of my half hour. There was a tap on the door, and in came the photographer, camera at the ready. "Excuse me, sir" said he. RVW glared at him and said: "What's all this?", the camera flashed, and its operator departed post haste.

I then thanked Dr. Williams warmly, and myself departed. The picture is proudly displayed on the trophy wall of my apartment, right next to my graduation certificate from the Royal College of Music, where once RVW was a student, and later a professor of composition.

I have an idea that our Schola Cantorum was not the only New York Sate chorus doing this work in December. I've heard rumors that one of the State Colleges not far from Geneva also performed it, but, I think, at a slightly later hour. Our concert was at four p.m., and this is the slender evidence that permits me to base our claim to have performed the U.S. première of this highly significant work.

—Lindsay Lafford
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