Handwashers’ Newsletter 24th January 2021


I have much enjoyed reading all the Vaughan Williams related material. This has reminded me of the various composers I have been fortunate to meet over the years. Not surprisingly, most of the composers I can claim to either know, or have known, tend to be writers of church music – not exactly household names, but all well respected within their field.

On one occasion, I remember sharing some of this information with the Abbey choristers. I was rather proud that I could rhyme off a list including such people as Kenneth Leighton, Francis Jackson, Philip Moore, Arthur Wills and various others. The children seemed mightily impressed – we sang music by all of these men, so the names were very familiar. And then, without any sense of irony whatsoever, one of the choristers put up his hand and said, “Did you ever meet Mozart, sir?!”

Without a doubt, the most famous composer I have ever met was Olivier Messiaen. As it happens, he was adjudicating an organ playing competition whilst I was a student in London. He very kindly awarded me first prize, and I still have the certificate to prove it! However, I do remember that the conversation afterwards was pretty hopeless as, unfortunately, his mastery of the English language was as dire as my schoolboy French!

Olivier Messiaen

I am pleased to share with you a recital I recorded last week in a cold, empty Tewkesbury Abbey. There’s no Messiaen (hurrah, I hear some of you say!) but there is a piece by Jean Langlais, who I also had the privilege of meeting. I hope you enjoy it.



Penny’s contribution about Ralph Vaughan Williams has stirred a number of memories including:


Having contributed something on Arthur Bliss to last week’s CCS newsletter, here is something else that you may like to include in the next one. I noticed there was a short piece on Vaughan Williams, so the attached extract ‘Tea with Vaughan Williams’ should make fascinating reading. It so happens that in the CKCS tenors we have David Iliff, whose mother was Simona Pakenham, the actress and writer, who became a friend and associate of RVW in his later years and collaborated with him in providing the text for The First Nowell (one of his last works). I have left the script as it was produced with a manual typewriter – this adds to the period flavour of the writing. Tea with Vaughan Williams

Simona Packenham


How lovely to read Penny’s thoughts on Ralph Vaughan Williams.  I can’t claim to have met RVW but, as a child, I did once meet his widow Ursula via a family friend, Roy Douglas. 


Ursula Vaughan Williams

Roy had worked with RVW from 1944 until the composer’s death in 1958, helping to prepare his work for publication and performance.  Roy Douglas was a talented musician although he had little formal training in music.  He worked variously as cinema organist, orchestral librarian, rehearsal accompanist, arranger (most notably of Chopin’s music for the ballet Les Sylphides and of Richard Adinsell’s Warsaw Concerto), and composer of light music.  He also loved quizzes and cryptic crosswords, and like Inspector Morse, noted how long it took him to complete The Times crossword each day.  He died in 2015 at the age of 106, still enjoying TV quiz shows such as Countdown.  I visited him not long before his death and we talked about our favourite composers.  I was amused to note that RVW did not feature among his top favourites: first place, I seem to remember, went to Haydn.

Roy Douglas and Vaughan Williams

Andy suggests the opening of the Sea Symphony as a favourite:



From 1945 to 1949 Herbert Byard was CCS conductor and he wasn’t slow to use his many contacts to resurrect the Society after WW2. He invited Herbert Howells, Reginald Jacques and Ralph Vaughan Williams to become Patrons. Howells and Jacques agreed with signed typewritten letters and Vaughan Williams with this:

These letters, discovered in a battered old suitcase, now reside in the Society’s archives and those Patrons names graced CCS concert programmes until their respective deaths, RVW in 1958.

Also in the archives is this personally signed photograph of Vaughan Williams dated 1932 which we think may have come from Joyce Lang (CCS Conductor 1982-90). Joyce once recounted that, whilst a student at RCM and in the absence of her regular conducting tutor, she found herself being tutored by ‘the great man’. In 1988 Joyce introduced us to RVW’s ‘Serenade to Music’ composed to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Henry Wood’s first concert:



Alison remembers above that Roy Douglas’ favourite composer was Haydn so, to find just one reason of many for agreeing, turn up your volume and enjoy Haydn’s Symphony number 94, second movement, here:


and Andy invites us to reflect on how things have changed in his lifetime (and a bit): Then Now