Friday, October 26, 2007

Not so distant history

Most musicians and listeners would consider the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams a name from the distant past. His most frequently performed works, "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" and "The Lark Ascending," date from 1910 and 1920, respectively. Yet his widow, biographer and sometime librettist, Ursula Vaughan Williams, died just this past Tuesday (Oct. 23).

Her obituary from The Globe and Mail of Toronto:

Granted, she was 40 years younger than her husband (they married in 1953 after their first spouses died), and she lived to the age of 87.

But it's not unusual to encounter intimates and acquaintances of long-dead figures and witnesses to long-ago events. In 1990 I interviewed a lady who accompanied Hugo von Hofmannstahl, the librettist of Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," to a performance of the opera at the first Salzburg Festival in 1925. I've known people who were close to such historically distant artists as Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, Bohuslav Martinu, Bruno Walter and Albert Schweitzer. I learned "The Wreck of the Old 97" from my grandfather, who witnessed the train wreck in 1903 and knew the man who wrote the lyrics. And I'm still several years shy of 60.

"Old" is an elastic term, and as life spans grow longer it will stretch even further.