A Slight Breach of Decorum

Portrait of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1921 Portrait by E.O. Hoppé)

By the 1950s Ralph Vaughan Williams was a heavyset, craggy-faced monument to solid British music and decorum, so he must have presented quite a contrast with the guest conductor at a choral competition that took place at the base of the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards. Vaughan Williams had been invited to judge the event and had carefully rehearsed the choirs.

Presiding over the event was Dame Clara Novello Davies, who had composed a song for the occasion. For the performance of it, she had gone all out.

The commanding officer, Colonel Price, recalled that as the curtains parted, Madame Clara appeared sheathed from head to toe in tight gold lamé topped by a wreath of gold leaves in her hair. She carried a baton of gold leaves that had been presented to her by some long-forgotten president of France. As she came forward to conduct her song, the ranks of assembled choirs in battle dress “parted in amazement.”

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Just then, things began to go awry. The train of her golden dress caught on a nail in the floor. The music for her song had been placed upside down on the stand, and as she leaned on the stand for support, a loose wing-nut caused the whole thing to fall over, and down she went with it, sprawling before the startled audience.

She recovered, gave a long eulogy for her late son, songwriter Ivor Novello, and then began conducting her song, which went badly. Ignoring Vaughan Williams down in the orchestra pit and forgetting both the audience and the occasion, she began berating the singers.

“You don’t know it!” she barked. “Stand up!”

She went on to browbeat the choirs until the regimental Sergeant-Major averted a complete disaster by calling for the men to give “three cheers for Madame Clara.”

For the sake of moving on as quickly as possible, Ralph Vaughan Williams no doubt cheered as lustily as any of them.