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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Overview of the Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 "The Sea"

Vaughan Williams did not number his first three symphonies, except by implication when he produced the Symphony No. 4. He is a major symphonist, and none of his symphonies are musically alike. Each of the nine takes a different approach to the form and creates its own world. The Sea Symphony is a rarity: a choral symphony which really is a true symphony, with sonata-allegro first movement, scherzo and trio, and so on. The texts come mostly from Whitman's lesser-known poems. That he managed to find texts that fit symphonic design without force testifies both to his strength as a symphonic builder and to his thorough knowledge of Whitman. It's a fine setting, at once a splendid homage to the English late Romantic choral tradition of Elgar and Parry. Yet, in the final movement, which describes humankind's voyage of the soul, it points to something new in British music – a kind of clear-eyed vision, of the sort that Holst pursued so successfully.

Symphony No. 2 "London"

I call this the "Pétrouchka" symphony. The first movement bustles with the energy of fair crowds. For sheer orchestral color, it's probably the most gorgeous of the nine, particularly in the string writing. The slow movement seems to describe a London winter; you can feel the cold. The scherzo throws off pyrotechnic lightning, much like Debussy's "Fêtes," or a Whistler nocturne. The last movement is a march, curiously reminiscent of the last movement of Brahms' first, if only because the theme is almost as compelling.

Symphony No. 3 "Pastoral"

Vaughan Williams described this as "four movements, all slow" – although not quite true, but pretty close. It's a hard work to get to know, but it's also close to the spiritual center of Vaughan Williams. Forget Beethoven's birds, brooks, and thunderstorms. The work seems to find a musical equivalent to Hardy's impersonality and otherness of nature, not inimical exactly, but on its own non-human schedule and agenda. Constant Lambert remarked (famously) that it reminded him of "a cow looking over a gate." Stravinsky (less famously) said that it was like staring at cow for a long time. For some reason, people saw it as a monument of English pastoralism, but they missed the mark. Vaughan Williams was indeed inspired by landscape, but not English landscape; rather, the landscape of wartime France. Michael Kennedy sees it as a pantheistic requiem for the dead of World War I. Its passions run very deep below a largely dispassionate surface. It seems to grant the dead eternal rest. The 2nd movement is a trumpet solo echoing the mood of "The Last Post". In the last movement, a wordless soprano floats over and through the music and time stops. The one voice turns out to be something like the voice of the wind.

Symphony No. 4 in F Major

The grinding dissonances and angry, uncertain tone of this work disguise the fact that structurally, this is the most classical of Vaughan Williams' symphonies (although not all that conventional). For this reason, it's probably the most programmed by "regular" conductors. To those in the first audience expecting another "Pastoral," this symphony – a masterpiece of British modernism – must have given quite a jolt. Like Mozart and Beethoven, Vaughan Williams constructs the large structure out of a limited set of bits and pieces. Indeed, the same bits construct each very different movement, so the work has enormous unity. Like Haydn, he immediately seizes on the structural conflicts inherent in his harmonies. The final movement includes the most spectacular contrapuntal summing up since Mahler's Fifth.

Mitropoulos gave a searing account in the early stereo era. Bernstein's performance disappoints, as does Previn's – just not enough BTUs. Adrian Boult's recording is good, but not as overwhelming as Mitropoulos or the composer's historic own.

Comprehensive Guide to Symphony #4

Symphony No. 5 in D Major

In this symphony, Vaughan Williams reinvents his pastoralism of the 1920s, making it leaner and more incisive and injecting a vitalizing dose of counterpoint. Of all the symphonies, this is the composer's most transparently scored. It sums up, to a certain extent, Vaughan Williams' musical idiom of the previous twenty years: the pastoral mode and polytonalism of the third symphony, the expanded dissonance and contrapuntal virtuosity of the fourth (although softened, by dynamics and orchestration), the "moonlight" music of the Serenade. Vaughan Williams sings in this symphony more than in any other he wrote, perhaps because much of its material comes from the opera Pilgrim's Progress, incomplete at the time. The work seems not to proceed by theme (although extremely tight structurally), but from song to song. It's probably his most popular symphony and the one closest to people's idea of his music. The work appeared during World War II, and audiences thought this Vaughan Williams' "vision of peace." Such speculation usually annoyed the composer, who thought himself a musician, rather than a seer. Whatever. One can say, however, that its mood comes from great emotional strength, to which audiences continue to respond. Of all the symphonies, this to me comes closest to the spiritual world of the Tallis Fantasia. Yet a disturbing element simmers below. It's not all alleluias and amens.

Boult for many years led the best recorded performance, but Bryden Thomson and especially André Previn (on Telarc) have surpassed him.

Comprehensive Guide to Symphony #5

Symphony No. 6 in E Major

Michael Kennedy called this symphony "compulsive strangeness." I don't quite agree; its strangeness strikes me as extremely tame, compared to such Vaughan Williams works as the Viola Suite or the Partita. Its strangeness is fairly straightforward. However, its tone unsettles you. In the view that sees the 4th symphony as a prophecy of World War II and the 5th as the vision of piece, the 6th comes out as a depiction of postwar nuclear anxiety. It's a fairly silly view. Vaughan Williams' music to me usually depicts inner, rather than outer weather (to quote Frost). The harmonic vocabulary has expanded from the fifth, although the textures have become more abrasive. The grotesque looms fairly large, especially in the scherzo and in the finale, a slow fugue where "wisps of themes" – to quote the composer – float about. I find the emotional temperature of the work similar to the tragic element in Hardy, particularly in Tess and in the Mayor of Castorbridge. The finale in particular reminds me of Hardy's and Holst's Egdon Heath, although the composer saw it as close to Shakespeare's "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." Certainly, when he set these words in the Three Shakespeare Songs for chorus, he used the same musical progression (Eb to e) as in the symphony's conclusion – a slow fadeout, like Holst's Neptune, to nothing.

Symphony No. 7, "Sinfonia Antartica"

Vaughan Williams wrote the film score to the British blockbuster "Scott of the Antarctic". The music interested him enough to turn it into a symphony. The composer's success was mixed. On the one hand, he creates a more chromatic harmonic palette without sacrificing his individual tone of voice. The orchestration becomes more daring. The themes are longer-limbed and far more complex than previously. However, the symphonic argument is not as compelling as what came before or what was to come. The composer prefaced each movement with a quotation. The quotations imply a meditation on heroism. Privately, however, Vaughan Williams was enraged at Scott's poor planning. What I get from the music has little to do with heroes and everything to do with the dangerous power of the natural world, all the more frightening because insentient. In short, this is the dark side of the Symphony No. 3.

Bernard Haitink does better than Boult with this score.

Symphony No. 8 in D Major

Now this is compulsively strange, but also Vaughan Williams in his "unbuttoned" mood. The work is in four movements, standard in number and anything but in character: Variations without a theme, a scherzo-march for winds only, a slow movement cavatina for strings only, and a toccata finale in which the composer tries to throw in every percussion instrument that produces a definite pitch (he got the idea from Puccini's Turandot). It's lovely and joyous, and seems analogous to Mahler's Symphony No. 4, at least in regard to its emotional temperature among the complete symphonies. The surprise of the work, given its high spirits, is the Cavatina, a lyrical bit that gets inside you.

Symphony No. 9 in E Major

Of all Vaughan Williams' symphonies, this is the hardest to know. On the one hand, I find the argument difficult to follow. On the other, the emotion runs deeper and wider than in any other of the composer's symphonies. The 4th has a more obvious power, but its world is a narrow one. The 5th speaks to your soul, but it speaks of only a few things. The 9th opens up a big world, and although the composer died at 86, you find yourself ungrateful that he died too soon. I find it hard to talk about this work, since I don't claim to understand it. However, I do find myself going back to it more than just about any other of the composer's major works.

Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz