Saturday, 15 August 2015

Down Ampney

As a former boss of mine used to say, there's a time and a place for spontaneity. My visit to Down Ampney wasn't planned: I had been in Droitwich (in Elgar country) for a family gathering, and a look at the map showed me that with only a slight detour I would be able to pass through Down Ampney, birthplace of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I seized the day.

It was June, only a few days from the solstice. Not a scorching hot day, but warm and mostly sunny. Almost as soon as you enter the village of Down Ampney there is a sign beckoning you towards the historic church. It is down quite a long track, set amid fields where sheep were grazing beneath green trees. Peter Warlock infamously (and inaccurately) described Vaughan Williams’ music as ‘just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate'; and here in Down Ampney it is easy to imagine where that facet of his rich musical personality came from.

All Saints Church, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire

Pronunciation and punctuation

Ralph Vaughan Williams' first name is pronounced Rafe (to rhyme with ‘safe'); any other pronunciation used to annoy him. His surname was Vaughan Williams, without a hyphen: Vaughan-Williams is incorrect, and it is also wrong to list him as ‘Williams, Ralph Vaughan'.

There seems to be some doubt about how to say Down Ampney. My visit in June was on a Sunday morning, and I arrived just as a service was ending. The curate greeted me, and in the course of our conversation I asked what the correct pronunciation should be. She told me it was ‘Amney', with a silent p; but she confessed that she was not a native, and in the rest of her conversation she pronounced it ‘Ampney'. 

One of my correspondents has stated that the p is ‘not exactly silent'. It is not quite absent, but not quite there: think of Stepney as pronounced by someone who lives there.

Vaughan Williams’ birthplace

The Old Vicarage, where Vaughan Williams was born in 1872, is now a private house. It is a surprisingly long way from the church, set back slightly from the road and protected behind a gate. Unlike the church, which has a small exhibition about the composer’s life, there is no obvious memorial to him on the house which is visible to the general public. I would imagine the current owners discourage tourists like myself from gawping at their home, and who can blame them?

Come down, O love divine

The tune DOWN AMPNEY was written by Vaughan Williams for the hymn Come down, O love divine. Here it is being sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

The tune first appeared in The English Hymnal, a collection of hymns for which Vaughan Williams was the music editor. Most of the ‘new’ tunes that he provided for this book were adapted from existing melodies - mostly folk-songs like The Ploughboy’s Dream (FOREST GREEN) and Our Captain calls all hands (MONKS GATE). Only three tunes in The English Hymnal were completely original compositions by Vaughan Williams; of these, DOWN AMPNEY is arguably the most beautiful - in fact it is one of the most beautiful of all hymn-tunes. By giving this tune the name of his idyllic birthplace the composer seems to be giving it his personal seal of approval; though I also guess that the words of the hymn (Come DOWN, O love divine) may have given him the idea of choosing this name.