After having sat unnoticed in the University Library for over 100 years, a composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams has entered the limelight. The piece, written by Williams for his doctoral exam in 1898, will be performed for the first time in March 2011.

Alan Tongue, a conductor and previous Jesus College student, noticed the work in a UL exhibit.

“Gazing at a page of the score displayed in a glass case, I knew that here was a significant work. I thought to myself: I want to hear this played and I want to be the one to conduct it,” said Tongue.

Tongue requested permission to transcribe the untouched manuscript. The UL was happy to comply, explained Head of the UL Music Department, Anna Pensaert.

 “After the exhibition closed, I visited the Manuscript Room and asked to see the mass.” Tongue explained. “I sat enthralled turning over the pages in the hushed atmosphere and trying to imagine the sounds. Here was clearly a work from a great composer.”

Williams wasn’t exactly regarded as great during his time as a student at Trinity College.  According to the RVW Society, at least one teacher told Williams he had no hopes of becoming a composer.

Yet Williams persevered, returning to Cambridge after a brief stint at the Royal College of Music in London. The end result was The Cambridge Mass, written for a doctoral exam.

“It is always interesting to discover early works such as this,” explained Karen Fletcher, publicity officer at the Vaughan Williams Society. “The composer was maturing and developing his own style.

“Over the next ten years he was to arrive on the world stage as one of the most significant composers this country has ever had…He went on to compose brilliant symphonies, operas, chambers and choral works into his old age.”

Choral scholar Huw Leslie, a second-year student at St. John’s College, told Varsity, “The discovery matters because Vaughan Williams is a brilliant composer, and such an important part of our history.

“He was absolutely instrumental in saving St. John’s College Choir as we know it,” added Leslie, referring to a telegram Williams sent to the Master in the 1950s pleading to keep the old College Choir School open.

The Cambridge Mass will be performed 3 March 2011 at Fairfield Hall, Croydon.