One of his most dissonant symphonies, oddly enough, this is one of Vaughan Williams' most frequently-performed works. We normally think of Vaughan Williams as a "pastoral" composer – modal, melodic, meditative, folky – but in truth his range is far more wide. To those of you who know only the Tallis Fantasia, Linden Lea, the Mass in G minor, or the English Folk-Song Suite, this symphony will surprise you.
As a Vaughan Williams fan, I have to say this work isn't really typical of him, not because of its dissonance (many of his works are dissonant, written in several different simultaneous keys, etc.), but because it's probably the closest thing he wrote to a conventional symphony. Conductors who can't make structural sense of something like the meditative Symphony No. 3 (the "Pastoral"), find more helpful signposts here. As a result, more conductors not particularly associated with his work have recorded it. Of the recorded performances, I like Boult, Bernstein, and Previn – in that order. I haven't heard the newer crop of conductors: Thomson, Hickox, Handley, or Davis. However, none of the performances cited above match the composer's own. If you can stand the 1937 sound, get this recording. For a nice compromise between interpretation and sound, get the Boult.
The British composer William Walton, at that time having troubles completing his own symphony and having been to the rehearsals of Vaughan Williams' 4th, reported glumly to a friend, "You are about to hear the greatest symphony since Beethoven." As serious criticism, we can blow it off, but it does indicate the symphony's considerable impact at a first hearing. Indeed, its impact has given rise to several misunderstandings of the work – notably, that it prophesied the rise of Fascism. Something this powerful MUST mean something. But this view, of course, came later, in the 40s. At its 1935 premiere, no one connected this with Fascism, and the composer always strenuously insisted it was pure music. Vaughan Williams' friends found it to express his humor and his "poisonous temper." The composer himself deprecated the symphony in very well-known remarks. He described the opening grinding dissonances as "cribbed from the finale of Beethoven's ninth." To a musician's questioning of a certain note, he replied, "It looks wrong and it sounds wrong, but it's right." "I don't know whether I like it, but it's what I meant." Actually, the composer protested too much. I believe the symphony expresses some inner program, but it is precisely because it talks about "inner weather" (to borrow Frost's happy term about poets) that it remains hidden. People also thought that the symphony was unprecedented in Vaughan Williams' output, but in fact it culminates a phase that began in the 20s, at least with the powerful oratorio Sancta Civitas, and continued through the ballet Job and the piano concerto. Indeed, the piano concerto lies very close in spirit and method to the symphony.
I've called this work the closest Vaughan Williams ever came to a conventional, or classical, symphony. If we define classicism in music as an architectural principle based on symmetry or even as pouring new wine into the sonata-allegro form, Vaughan Williams isn't particularly classical. However, what I would call the "classical process" is there in spades. Composers like Mozart and Beethoven don't begin with elements as complete as "themes," but at the lower level of "cell" or "motive." From cells, they construct themes. By recombining cells, altering rhythms, etc., they get new themes. Mozart plays this game especially well. This method gives a work great unity. Beethoven extended the principle across movements of a piece, in works like the 5th symphony and the 4th piano concerto, thus tightening up a work even more. This is the game Vaughan Williams plays. He grows an entire symphony from a few cells.
I've mentioned before that one of problems of the Romantic symphony was that it based itself on song or theme rather than cell, especially someone like Borodin. The songs are great, but his symphonies don't cohere like Brahms'. Actually, very few composers write great songs and great symphonies. Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams come to mind. But, in effect, all these guys lead two artistic lives. They work one way when they write songs and another when they write the big instrumental works. As most of you know, the English folk song strongly influenced Vaughan Williams' idiom, but by that time he had been thoroughly trained in the Brahms tradition under its leading British exemplars, Parry and Stanford (see Vaughan Williams' Toward the Unknown Region, especially, for a look at him pre-folk – and pre-Ravel). A very sturdy skeleton supports Vaughan Williams' most emotionally rhapsodic works – rhapsodic almost never degenerates to episodic.
I hope to show that this symphony is also about counterpoint. Yet, despite the formidable compositional technique, ultimately the power of this symphony lies beyond words and analysis. Vaughan Williams is so at home in the symphony, that he constructs movements without the usual signposts. You take the path "less traveled by," but you get to the end without confusion. Vaughan Williams is a poet of the form.
Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz