The piano of one of Britain’s most famous composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, is on display for the first time at his childhood home, Leith Hill Place in Surrey. Until now, the instrument on which Vaughan Williams composed masterpieces such as The Lark Ascending – named the nation’s favourite piece of classical music – has only been glimpsed only in family photographs.
But thanks to a private donor, visitors can now see Vaughan Williams’ piano on display at Leith Hill Place, which he gave to the National Trust in 1945. The piano, a Broadwood with a model name of Honeysuckle, dates from 1903 and was purchased secondhand by Vaughan Williams in 1905. It was delivered to his Chelsea address, 13 Cheyne Walk, and went with him years later to his Dorking home.
He kept the instrument close to hand through his most productive and important years as a composing tool for The Lark Ascending in 1914 through to later works such as his Piano Concerto, Five Tudor Portraits, Symphonies 1–9, film music for Scott of the Antarctic, Folk Songs of the Four Seasons and An Oxford Elegy. The piano remained in the family for many years until now and has undergone repairs prior to coming to Leith Hill Place, including a new tuning plank and re-stringing.
Gabrielle Gale, National Trust manager for Leith Hill Place, said: “It is quite an unassuming instrument, said to suit the character of the man and it sat in the composer’s study where he used it daily to try out musical ideas, so it is a workhorse rather than a concert piano.
“Although the piano would not have originally been at Leith Hill Place, we felt it was the best home for the instrument since Vaughan Williams’ later Dorking home is no longer standing. In keeping with the spirit of the composer, who believed that music should be enjoyed by everyone, the piano will be played on certain days and for special events at the house.”
In addition to its famous association with Vaughan Williams, Leith Hill Place was also the home of his grandparents, Josiah Wedgwood III (of the ceramics company) and Caroline (née Darwin) from 1847. The naturalist Charles Darwin, his great-uncle, conducted experiments in the grounds.
Gabrielle Gale adds: “Set up high on the hill with sweeping views of the Surrey countryside, you can imagine the outlook from Leith Hill Place inspiring the young composer. The house is largely unfurnished, but has an informal atmosphere where visitors can really feel at home, and it will be greatly enriched by having the composer’s piano here. On the occasions when it is played, I am sure visitors will relish hearing the same tones from it that Vaughan Williams heard when he first tried out those now famous works.”