Investigating an inscription: Margaret Vaughan Williams on the Canadian prairies?

Book of Mozart sonatas held at the Eckhardt-Gramatte Music Library, University of Manitoba.

You turn up all kinds of strange things working in a library. Earlier in 2017, in the course of working on a project to audit and improve our holdings of Mozart sonatas, I found an old book with an interesting inscription.

First leaf of a book of Mozart piano sonatas held in the Eckhardt-Gramatte Music Library at the University of Manitoba.

And a closer view:

Mozart piano sonata book, first leaf inscription, detail.

If you can’t see the image, here’s what it says:

Margaret Vaughan Williams
June 6th, 1903
Haus Hugo Richter
Davos Platz
Suisse

From Auntie

In itself, this book is the kind of junk that accumulates in music libraries everywhere: an old, bad edition of standard repertoire in deteriorating condition. The textual value of a hundred-year-old book of Mozart piano sonatas is questionable, and under ordinary circumstances it would probably be withdrawn. But the name of a close relative of a major composer written on one of your library’s items is hard to ignore. At the request of our music librarian, I started to look into the matter to see what the story was behind this book.

Ralph Vaughan Williams had two Margarets in his life: his mother, Margaret Vaughan Williams, nee Wedgwood (of the china/pottery family); and his sister, Margaret (Meggie) Vaughan Williams. Margaret Vaughan Williams died 1937, long outliving her daughter, who died 1931. So both were alive in June of 1903 and could have been the recipient of this book.

I have proceeded under the assumption that the recipient was Meggie for a couple reasons, some better than others. The first is that the Wedgwood Museum website incorrectly has (or had, when I looked at it) Margaret’s date of death as 1897, and I only corrected this error late in the game after I had done a lot of research under the assumption Margaret had already died by 1903. This is just a reminder to always double-check information with authoritative sources.1

However, there are other reasons to think it’s Meggie’s book of sonatas. Margaret seems not to have had much in the way of musical inclinations. Ralph was first instructed in music by his aunt Sophy,2 and Meggie was also somewhat involved in music as an administrator of festivals,3 but there’s not much mention of Margaret as a musician. Margaret was also quite old by 1903, and it seems less likely she would be receiving gifts affectionately labelled as “from Auntie” than Meggie, who was 33.

It also appears, based on the family tree in The Wedgwood Circle, that Margaret would not have had a living aunt by the beginning of the new century.4 At any rate, assuming the recipient was Margaret raises more questions than it answers, and assuming the recipient was Meggie aligns more nicely with the known facts.

Davos Platz was known in the 19th century as the place where English visitors would congregate in Davos, the Swiss health spa town.5 Hugo Richter was a bookseller and one of the two men who popularized Davos as a health resort for those with tuberculosis in the 19th century.6 Presumably this means the book of Mozart sonatas was purchased from Hugo Richter’s shop during a trip to Switzerland, perhaps for health reasons.

The next question is the identity of “Auntie”. The obvious candidate is Katherine (Sophy) Wedgwood (1842-1911), Margaret’s sister and the aunt of Ralph and Meggie. Sophy lived with the Vaughan Williams family for some time in the 1880s and seems to have been close to them. As she aged, she became ill and developed some eccentricities, like hoarding and refusing to eat,7 that distanced her from the Vaughan Williams children. She grew difficult to live with, and Ursula Vaughan Williams’s RVW biography contains no mention of her between the late 1880s and her death. Her role as Ralph’s first music teacher, her closeness to the family, and the fact that she was in ill health by 1903 makes it seem a reasonable hypothesis that she purchased this book in Davos as a gift to Meggie. However, let’s consider the other possibilities.

On the maternal side, Ralph and Meggie were descended from the Wedgwood family, which meant they were related to a number of notable English people of the period including Charles Darwin. Aside from Sophy, they had just one maternal aunt: Lucy (Wedgwood) Harrison (1846-1919). All the Wedgwood daughters learned music at a young age, and Lucy in particular took a liking to composition.8 During the period immediately after the death of Arthur Vaughan Williams (Ralph and Meggie’s father), the Vaughan Williams family lived at Leith Hill Place with Sophy, and Lucy would visit when her naval officer husband was at sea.9

Lucy had musical inclinations and was alive in 1903. However, it’s not clear that she was very prominent in the lives of the Vaughan Williams family by the turn of the century – Ursula’s RVW biography makes no mention of her whatsoever after the 1890s, for example – but it’s certainly possible that she was the purchaser of this book rather than Sophy.

The paternal side is a dead end, as the only paternal Vaughan Williams aunt died at the age of nine.10

Finally, we should consider the question underlying all this discussion: how did a book owned by the sister of an English composer of note end up in an academic library in Winnipeg?

I had my suspicions about the answer to this question. Many prominent people in the Winnipeg music community at mid-century were English or Scottish imports, including a lot of the initial faculty of the University of Manitoba School of Music (which began operation in 1964, with its building being completed in 1965). It seems reasonable to posit that Meggie’s piano music would have been scattered far and wide upon her death, and this book somehow ended up in the hands of a musician who later came to Winnipeg and donated it to the local music library upon their retirement or death.

These suspicions were largely confirmed during a second collection project focusing on Beethoven’s sonatas. Here a book of sonatas came to my attention because it was strangely mis-catalogued. On closer investigation we found that it had the same inscription.

First leaf of a book of Beethoven sonatas held in the Eckhardt-Gramatte Music Library.

And a close-up:

Margaret Vaughan Williams inscription in the Beethoven book, detail.

As a bonus, this book has a donor tag indicating who had donated it and when: Mrs. Leonard D. Heaton, in 1964. Leonard Heaton (1889-1963) was an English pianist who moved to Winnipeg in 1907 and became a pillar of the local and regional musical scene. As an English musician of this period, he probably would not have been more than one or two degrees removed from the Vaughan Williams family.

On coming to Canada, Heaton operated in the orbit of the University of Manitoba, and the green room attached to the Eva Clare recital hall in the original School of Music building is named after him. Evidently his wife donated much of his music collection to the university shortly after his death (many other items in the library have a Mrs. Leonard D. Heaton donor tag).

These books were added into the collection by a remarkably incurious library assistant, and they sat largely unused on the shelves for decades. They survived a move from the library’s old location in the School of Music building to the new library in Tache Hall, where we discovered them by accident in early 2017.

Sadly I was not able to discover the full story behind these books, but there’s enough information to make some informed speculations. In the process we’ve unearthed an interesting bit of local history while making a small contribution to the literature on a major composer. Not bad for a piece of junk we found, is it?

I would like to thank Jan Guise, Lorna Cameron, and Mikaela Oldenkamp of the Eckhardt-Gramatte Music Library for their roles in the process of discovering these books. I’d also like to thank Lucy Lead of the Wedgwood Museum, Natalie Savage of Leith Hill Place, and Graham Muncy of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society for fielding some questions about the Vaughan Williams and Wedgwood families.

Feature photo: Leith Hill Place, former home of the Vaughan Williams family. Credited to “Rob_enwiki” at Wikimedia Commons. CC Sharealike 4.0.

Notes

  1. Margaret’s death is given as Nov. 20, 1937 in Barbara and Hensleigh Wedgwood, The Wedgwood Circle, 1730-1897 (Don Mills, Ont.: Collier Macmillan Canada, 1980): 382, and Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W. (London: Oxford University Press, 1964): 215.
  2. Ralph Vaughan Williams, “A Musical Autobiography” in National Music and other essays, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 1987): 177.
  3. On Meggie as a festival administrator, see Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W., 74.
  4. B. and H. Wedgwood, The Wedgwood Circle, family tree inside cover.
  5. T. Clifford Allbutt, “Davos as a Health Resort”, The Lancet 132:3398 (Oct. 13, 1888): 705.
  6. W. H. Vormann, trans. and ed., Davos, its local physical and medical aspects: a practical handbook for physicians and patients (London: Provost & Co., 1882), 3. W. Steffen, author of the chapter on the physical aspects of Davos, notes on page 26 that the original text in German was published by Hugo Richter. See also Allbutt, “On Davos as a Health Resort”, The Lancet 110:2825 (Oct. 20, 1877): 577.
  7. On Sophy’s illness and strange behaviour, see B. and H. Wedgwood, The Wedgwood Circle, 344 and 354. See also Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W., 33 and 98.
  8. Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W., 4-5. Ursula notes on page 13 that “though Lucy was officially the musical one of her [i.e., R.V.W. grandmother Caroline Wedgwood’s] daughters, it was Sophy who gave Ralph his early music lessons.”
  9. B. and H. Wedgwood, The Wedgwood Circle, 316.
  10. Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W., 2.