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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony #4 in F minor (1934)

Fourth Movement

By far the most complex of the symphony, this movement will require a new labelling system for the themes, since Vaughan Williams uses stuff from all the movements so far as his musical material. Talk about summing up. Roman numerals refer to movements, the rest refers to the labels we've been using. Thus, I.1a is the grinding semitone of the first movement.

The movement, with an Italian title – "Finale con epilogo fugato," finale with fugato epilogue (HOW do I do it?) – begins with a roar of three chords and then takes off with the rest of the first theme (IV.1a). Perhaps the 3rd-movement transition and finale to Beethoven's 5th lay in back of Vaughan Williams' mind, and the similarity may have prompted Walton's remark.

The opening of the statement of the first thematic group (1-52) is actually a rhythmic variant of the flute cadenzas in movement II. IV.1a repeats (15) after an oompah bass and leads to a second theme (IV.1b) which relates I.B. (repeated notes) to I.1a (grinding), over the oompah bass. IV.1b gets expanded and developed until the re-entry of the opening (53) and further development. Part of this includes a quick run of F-Gb-Ab-Gb-F (IV.1c) (42) and a tail of a minor-3rd drop (IV.1d) (44-45), both of which have consequences later. He arrives at IV.1d through an earlier drop of a semitone (40), so it's clear that this part of the theme derives from I.1a. The first thematic group gets developed (53-76). Toward the end, Vaughan Williams emphasizes the minor 3rd of IV.1d (67-73). We have reached the end of the first section.

The second section announces a new theme in Bb (IV.2) (77-105), which begins with a triad. It sounds a bit like a call to arms. This is really the first time we've seen musical material like this. Where does it come from? It drove me nuts until the second half of the theme, insistent descending 4ths, clicked. Vaughan Williams has compressed the intervals of the scherzo's opening (III.1a) – 4ths to 3rds, 5ths to 4ths – and changed a syncopated jig to an on-the-beat 4-in-a bar. He subjects the theme to fugal treatment with stretto (a new entry of the fugal subject before the previous entry finishes). You hear this as a kind of "overlapping" of this theme.

At measure 106, IV.1c gets changed to triple time and moves against the call to arms, also in triple time and missing the 3rd of the triad. One would expect a development of this, but instead, the movement strangely begins to unravel. Theme IV.1a returns in a quicker version (115) and little by little our old friends begin to sneak in: BACH (117), grinding (119-122), and fanfare (117, trombone III and tuba, 127-132). The music tries to come together by insisting on IV.1b over oompahs, but this peters out to its basic semitone. At 169, the strings quietly try IV.1b, c, and d, and give up. At 177, a cantabile ("singing") for strings alone (177-188) shows the relation of I.B by following it with IV.2 (184-185). Toward the end (186), I.1a appears with the drop compressed.

Almost-BACH appears in the lower brass, as the bassoons quietly intone the fanfare. The pot begins to boil again (189-213) with this basic material of the first movement. We have reached the recapitulation.

It's a recap which greatly modifies the first and second subject groups. Everything is telescoped (214-c. 274). We get the opening three chords in the brass, IV.1a (214-215), followed almost immediately by IV.1b over the oompahs (223-245), IV.1c (237), and IV.2 in stretto (246-264) and in its triple-time version (264 ff.). Meanwhile, the strings seem to abandon themes for a continual swirl (see esp. 267-301), punctuated by IV.1d, now related to the major-minor conflict from the end of the first movement (302-309). But this time Vaughan Williams is not done yet. He moves us into the fugal epilogue.

To me, this spectacular section (309-452) takes a 20th-century look at nothing less than Bach's Art of the Fugue. One of the finest summings-up I know, it accords Vaughan Williams his place as a master.

We begin with, appropriately enough, almost-BACH against the rising-4th fanfare. Almost-BACH enters at various speeds (309- 353) sometimes accompanied by the fanfare. At 354, IV.1b is added to the brew, and it too gets played at various speeds within the contrapuntal texture. IV.1c gets its stretto (370- 378).

At 379, we essentially go through the same business again, but this time its almost-BACH against IV.2 (379-412). At 413, we get the triple-time version of IV.2 against a triple-time almost-BACH treated, once more, fugally (413-432). At 433, guess what? A restatement of the movement's three opening chords, but Vaughan Williams doesn't really mean it. It's almost-BACH almost all the way, working up to a ferocious climax, but there's one last surprise. The last page of the symphony (453-464) reprises the first page, and the orchestra makes a final stamp in f minor.

If you think about it, this is the first full stop the symphony has made. The first movement ended ambiguously in the major, after shifting back and forth between minor and major. The second movement ended on an unstable dissonance. The third movement slammed into the fourth, and the fourth movement has many opportunities to end which it passes up. This symphony just doesn't let you go until its last, angry gesture.

I have given you only highlights of this work. Vaughan Williams began sketches in 1931 and didn't complete it until 1934. He kept fiddling with it. As powerful as it is, there's a lot of calculation in it by someone who has fully mastered classical symphonic form. You can't do this kind of original work without first having absorbed the practice of your predecessors. The really amazing thing is that of his nine symphonies, none resembles this one. In fact, none of the nine resemble each other. Each represents a fresh look at the symphony. Try the other eight. Each one should surprise you.

Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz

Back to the Third Movement,
back to the Introduction,
back to Vaughan Williams.

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