Born in Down Ampney[?], Gloucestershire, where his father Arthur Vaughan Williams was rector, he was taken by his mother to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, the Wedgwood family home in the North Downs, after his father's early death in 1875. The other connection was with the Darwins, Charles Darwin being a great-uncle. Ralph (pronounced "rafe") was therefore born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class, but never took it for granted and worked tirelessly all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals he believed in.
After Charterhouse[?] he attended the Royal College of Music (RCM) under Charles Villiers Stanford. He read history and music at Cambridge, where his friends and contemporaries included the philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. He then returned to the RCM and studied composition with Hubert Parry, who became a close friend. His composing developed slowly and it was not until he was 30 that the song "Linden Lea" became his first publication. He mixed composition with conducting, lecturing and editing other music, notably that of Henry Purcell and the English Hymnal. A big step forward in his style occurred when he studied with Maurice Ravel in Paris.
In 1904 he discovered English folk songs, which were fast becoming extinct owing to the increase of literacy and printed music in rural areas. He collected many himself and edited them. He also incorporated some into his music, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its anonymous history in the working lives of ordinary people.
In 1910 he had his first big public successes conducting the premieres of the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis[?] and A Sea Symphony, and a greater success with A London Symphony in 1914, conducted by Geoffrey Toye[?]. Although at 40, and as an ex-public schoolboy, he could easily have avoided war service or been commissioned as an officer, he enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps[?] and had a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer before being commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery. On one occasion he was too ill to stand but continued to direct his battery lying on the ground. Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of loss of hearing which was eventually to cause deafness in old age. In 1918 he was appointed Director of Music, First Army and this helped him adjust back into musical life.
After the war he adopted for a while a profoundly mystical style in the Pastoral Symphony and Flos Campi, a choral work with viola solo. From 1924 a new phase in his music began, characterised by lively cross-rhythms and clashing harmonies. Key works from this period are Toccata marziale, the ballet Old King Cole, the Piano Concerto, the oratorio Sancta Civitas (which he considered his best music) and the masque Job. This period in his music culminated in the Symphony in F minor, first played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935. Vaughan Williams later made a historic recording of the work. During this period he lectured in America and England, and conducted the Bach Choir and an annual festival at Dorking.
His music now entered a mature lyrical phase , as in the Five Tudor Portraits; the "morality" The Pilgrim's Progress; the Serenade to Music (a setting from act five of The Merchant of Venice, for orchestra and sixteen vocal soloists); and the Symphony No. 5[?] in D, which he conducted at the Proms in 1943. As he was now 70, many people considered it a swan song, but he renewed himself again and entered yet another period of exploratory harmony and instrumentation, and before his death in 1958 completed four more symphonies, all powerful, profound works, and a range of instrumental and choral works, including An Oxford Elegy on texts of Matthew Arnold and the Christmas cantata Hodie. At his death he left an unfinished Cello Concerto and an opera, Thomas the Rhymer.
Vaughan Williams is a central figure in British music because of his long career as teacher, lecturer and friend to so many younger composers and conductors. His writings on music remain thought-provoking, particularly his oft-repeated call for everyone to make their own music, however simple, as long as it is truly their own.