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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony #4 in F minor (1934)

First Movement

I pointed out that classical composers don't begin with themes, but with cells. Actually, in this symphony Vaughan Williams seems to begin at the even lower level of intervals. He builds the symphony out of two intervals: the semitone (or half step; notes B and C on a piano) and the perfect fourth (the opening two notes of "Here Comes the Bride"). From these intervals come the symphony's cells. From the cells, come most, if not all, of its themes. Extremely complex, this movement requires an overview and a comparison with the classical sonata-allegro form, traditionally the form of a first movement.

Classical Vaughan Williams
1. Optional intro Opening statement of all cells
2. 1st subject stated 1st subject stated and developed
3. 2nd subject stated 2nd subject stated and developed
4. Development Pseudo-recap; opening cells developed
5. Recapitulation Recap with variations
6. Optional coda Coda

The symphony states its matter immediately, beginning with a grinding dissonance ("cribbed", Vaughan Williams claimed, from the 9th's finale) and continuing with its major cells:

1a. A dissonance fortissimo (very loud) on the semitones Db and C. He immediately repeats it an octave lower.
1b. From these semitones comes the 4-note second cell, 2 semitones separated by a minor third. This cell does most of the thematic work and is also the BACH theme transposed. BACH in the German nomenclature consists of the notes Bb-A-C-B. Bach "signed" some of his pieces in this fashion, and later composers have taken it up in homage. In the opening, Vaughan Williams uses the notes Db-C-Eb-D, the same theme starting on a different note. This should tip us off that the symphony will probably emphasize counterpoint.
1c. He then immediately transforms 1b into a 4-note cell consisting of 2 semitones separated by a semitone: E-Eb-F-E, an "almost-BACH" theme. He sets all of these cells going at progressively faster speeds on different beats of the measure, getting a kind of lurching effect.
1d. He reverses 1a from Db-C to C-Db (except that he starts it on a C#) and extends it into an upward (later downward) semitonal run to F#, covering the interval of a perfect 4th. Oooo.
1e. An upward succession of perfect 4ths, heard mainly in the brass, as a kind of slow fanfare. The cell has major consequences throughout the symphony.

All this has occurred over the first 18 measures in under 30 seconds. Curiously, we have not yet heard f, the nominal key of the symphony and the movement. We could call this a classical intro, à la Beethoven's first or Haydn's 98th, but it takes up too much emotional weight. The latter two symphonies give you the impression of "warming up." Vaughan Williams' opening starts you with a crash. Opening key and emotional ambiguity is typical of Vaughan Williams, especially in symphonies 3-5.

By measure 19, we arrive in f, and Vaughan Williams repeats the opening ideas, minus the slow fanfare, in the new key. "Arrive" is perhaps too strong. The key has not really established itself.

The key that does is not f but d, with the sounding of the first full-blown tune (A). This passionately expands 1a – the grinding with the octave drop – to a throbbing accompaniment in the brass. Vaughan Williams repeats A higher and expands and extends it. Interestingly, A has the happy power to start or end a phrase. Essentially a "cadential figure" (a progression that provides final or temporary repose at the end of a section), it can also get tacked on as a beginning. Vaughan Williams doesn't develop this theme as much as vary it with new twists and turns. The twists may fascinate you so, you may miss the considerable canonic accompaniment. Theme A both begins and ends this section.

We then hit a new theme (B) in an ambiguous D, which I designate the second subject. It starts out as a syncopated repeated F# which opens out slightly into a combination of 1b through 1d. Midway through, a counter-theme (basically B reversed) in the winds and A sound against it. Eventually, A takes over and gets developed. Fragments of A and B full-blown sound simultaneously, in elaborate fugato counterpoint yet, and we reach a pseudo-recap, pseudo since it's really further development.

We hit this false recapitulation in d with the grinding and immediately fragments of BACH and almost-BACH, first very quiet and then bursting out. This comes closest to a classical development, very short, of the latter two themes, with the upward semitone fragment as an accompaniment. The opening themes (minus the fanfare) and their fragments come to the fore more quickly and with greater urgency.

We arrive now at a true recap with a fortissimo restatement of the grinding in a quick, demonic jig. The strings snarl the semitone run. The fanfares sound in canon. More grinding. Tune A sounds again in the bass with a simultaneous elaboration in the high strings. This reaches a climax which quickly dies down to a brief brass choral statement of A. We have reached the coda.

A very quiet and much slower statement of B sounds in the middle strings, with A as a counterpoint in the high strings. The harmonic clouds lighten. The winds play the opening fragment of A in dialogue with the strings, over a Db pedal. The movement takes a little time trying to figure out whether it will end in major (the strings) or minor (the winds). It settles for major.

Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz

Forward to the Second Movement,
back to the Introduction,
back to Vaughan Williams.