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O Thou Transcendent: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams

3.9 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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(Feb 26, 2008)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Tony Palmer directs this in-depth documentary biography of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The film includes interviews with many of those who knew and worked with the composer, as well as recently-discovered interviews with the man himself and contributions from Harrison Birtwhistle, John Adams, Richard Thompson, Mark Anthony Turnage, Barbara Dickson, Michael Tippett and Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys.


"His latest effort is a superb, stirring biography of the towering English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Piecing together a chronological timeline of Vaughan Williams' life and art, Palmer adroitly uses vintage interviews with the composer and his widow Ursula plus new interviews with other composers, colleagues, and friends to paint a complicated portrait of an agnostic who wrote some of the most emotional and spiritual music of the 20th century..." --

"Tony Palmer's film is now complete. Undoubtedly controversial it will also be very important in raising awareness of RVW. Two and a half hours long, it looks at Vaughan Williams' life as a disturbed and frustrated one. Powerful with some harrowing imagery, the film firmly dispels the myth that VW was a cuddly folk song collector and recycler who was affectionately known as "Uncle Ralph". As well as exploring his musical legacy, Palmer also focuses on the human side of VW. His frustration at living in a cosy market town, looking after an invalid wife (which he did devotedly) and the fury as well as the kindness and humanity which were all features of his remarkable character and which in their turn affected his music. The music passages are superbly played and filmed. The film is available on DVD. An absolute must see." --

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Thomas Allen, Jill Balcon, Barbara Dickson, English Chamber Orchestra, Brian Kay
  • Directors: Tony Palmer
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Alliance
  • DVD Release Date: February 26, 2008
  • Run Time: 148 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00118DQX8
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #102,888 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
When a British friend asked what I knew of classic British composer, R. Vaughan Williams, I blinked. That would be ... nothing. Although, as it turned out, when he speedily sent me a two-and-a-half-hour video to educate me, I did know more than nothing. I just didn't know that I knew. But as the documentary unfolded, my ear picked up a string of symphonies and a few sweeter melodies that I had known quite well. Only, shame on me, without giving due credit.

So this is R. Vaughan Williams. With gorgeous scenery that made me want to book a ticket to the United Kingdom, but now, as backdrop, a kind of mix of biography and history and imagined perception (the composer's) unfolded. This is the place and time that formed the musician that created the music. Indeed, to know and see all of this enriches understanding and appreciation of the music. Williams is often called a composer of folk melodies with a classical slant, but the documentary, interspersing soaring orchestras with crashing waves--the Sea Symphonies were easily my favorite--and gruesome war scenes and interview snippets with doddering, elderly British ladies, speaking of the composer's bushy eyebrows and tormented marriage (he loved his wife, but soon after marriage, her failing health became a primary issue), proves the point most eloquently that Williams is far more than folk tune composer. He is a composer on a grand scale. He has written scores for movies in his time, music that climbs mountains and builds suspense and melts into romance. He has composed symphonies that are complex and gorgeous. He can write the sweet melody that resonates in your mind all day long, but he can also write the sweep of crashing symphony that shakes the listener to the core ... as only powerful music can.

The video is long and highly detailed, but a visual treat as well as informative. I now know not only the music, but the man and the history behind it. The British are welcome here.
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Tony Palmer's film biography of Vaughan Williams presents the composer as a complicated genius and noble spirit who endured much frustration, disappointment, and tragedy in his life and expressed it in his music...a far cry from the popular image of RVW as sentimental folk tune recycler. The narrative is put forward using interviews and file voiceovers (most notably from RVW himself, his widow Ursula, and biographer Michael Kennedy, but including a wide, and sometimes surprising, group of talking heads). Beautifully filmed and leisurely paced, the film helps confirm Vaughan Williams as one of Europe's (not just England's) greatest 20th century composers. Excerpts from musical performances--newly recorded as well as file footage--give strong implicit evidence that Vaughan Williams was also a great symphonist. Palmer makes a mistake with the use of graphic late 20th- and 21st-century war and famine footage in an attempt to reinforce his otherwise well-founded argument that RVW's music is tragically pessimistic and relevant in the modern world; however, these few moments are only a small blemish on a highly successful and personal portrait. Highly recommended.
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This is really a well-made and important piece on one of my favorite composers. I was going to have my eight-year old son watch it with me. I'm glad I didn't. The film maker included very graphic and disturbing film images of dead and dying children to emphasize the horrors of war. I really believe this hurt the film. The horrors of war could have been depicted in a way that did not draw us too far away from the subject matter, which is a great composer and his music. At the end, it was the gruesome images of tragedy and destruction that stayed with me, not the man and his transcendent music. I'm not against powerful images and shaking things up when necessary, but the film maker, for all of his good work, crossed the line to the point where his creation left me angry and disturbed, not enlightened and inspired. A few substituted scenes could have made the point and still kept the focus on the composer and his work. I would have given it 5 stars otherwise.
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A great fan of RVW's music, and excitedly looked forward to viewing this piece......sadly disappointed in the result.

Tony Palmer does an interesting take on RVW's creative motivation....namely that it was to express in his music the various sufferings and tragedies of his own life and of his times. That may be so, it may not be. After all it was RVW himself who responded (I paraphrase): "....a man wants to write a piece of music for the sake of the music itself" when critics and reviewers wanted to interpret first his 4th, then his 6th symphony as about WWII and the turmoils of that era. Undoubtedly every artist in any media is of his times and influenced by the pleasures and pains of his own experience, but that does not necessarily mean that he is writing programmatic music to literally depict those times or events.

As another reviewer here has said, for Tony Palmer to repeatedly show brutal, horrible and tragic images from recent times (now 50 years after RVW's death) as a means to illustrate his own interpretation of the great motivational force in RVW's output, was a mistake. That did ruin this film.

And on a technical note, the repeated footage of mostly only two orchestras playing chopped up and mixed up excerpts from the several symphonies got to be confusing (and I do know the music) and uninteresting visually. For example, there is only one second symphony, yet it was identified in three separate ways as if there were three separate symphonies in question.

Also this film would have greatly benefited from sub-titles, remaining visible always in my opinion, but at least with the option to turn them on. Many of the interviews were unintelligible due to poor diction or fast speaking or the age of the person being interviewed.
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