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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Overview of the Symphonies

Symphony #5 in D Major (1943)

Introduction

This symphony consists largely of fragments from Vaughan Williams' then-unfinished opera, The Pilgrim's Progress. In his late 60s and early 70s when he began the Fifth, Vaughan Williams was to some extent impelled by the possibility that he might not finish the opera and hated to waste good ideas. I'll try to point out the symphony's musical connections to the opera (I'll undoubtedly miss some), where it seems relevant. In general, however, the symphony's musical themes bear only a very abstract relation to the opera. One can't say that the symphony has a specific program, although Vaughan Williams once affixed a quote (later removed) from Bunyan himself to the opening of the slow third movement.

The symphony is in the "usual" four movements: a "Preludio" first movement; Scherzo; a "Romanza" slow movement; a "Passacaglia" finale. These correspond (sort of) to a sonata-allegro first movement, scherzo, song-form slow movement, and rondo finale of the classical symphony. We will of course find differences which provide insight into some of Vaughan Williams' symphonic methods.

Note : To provide further help, I will give timings indicating where the large pieces begin. I use the Boult recording on EMI.

First Movement: Preludio

I think we can instructively compare the structure of the first movement of this symphony to the sonata-allegro of a classical symphony.

Classical :

  1. Statement (exposition) of the first subject group
  2. Exposition of the second subject group
  3. Development
  4. Recapitulation and optional coda

VW follows this model as closely as he ever did:

  1. Exposition of the first subject group
  2. Exposition of the second subject group
  3. Shortened development of one theme from 1st group and one sort of from the 2nd
  4. Recap of the first subject group
  5. Extended recap of the second subject group
  6. Coda

Most of the departures come from the fact that you distinguish the parts of a sonata-allegro through key changes. The problem is that modern music changes key (or "modulates") far more often than the classical model. How then does one perceive the structural parts?

VW, from the opening measures, puts key and structure into doubt. Long stretches of this symphony are simultaneously in two keys – C and D. The bass line is in C, the opening horn call in D. (He wrote in more than one key in other works as well; see "Flos Campi," from the 20s). Is the bass a dissonance to the horns (a flatted 7th, for you afficionados) or the horns to the bass (an augmented 4th, or "tritone")? For a considerable time, Vaughan Williams himself could not decide the movement's key (he settled for D). Indeed, an examination of the score reveals lots more dissonances than the average 18th- or 19th-century symphony, something that you'd probably expect anyway. Yet the movement, for the most part, sounds serene, with a sinister undertone that barely breaks the surface. Much of this softening comes from Vaughan Williams' orchestration: he tends to work in distinct "planes" of sound. In the opening measures, for example, the low cellos and basses are separated from the higher horns in range and sound color.

The opening is magic. It's as if the symphony doesn't begin: we merely happen upon a continual song. Contrast this with the definite start of Beethoven's "Eroica." From the very beginning, the outlines of Vaughan Williams' forms are hazier.

Even more important to the sound of the movement is Vaughan Williams' fondness for modal, mainly pentatonic (the black notes of the piano played as a scale) themes. I could go into technical reasons why such devices weaken the sense of tonality (for a good discussion of this, see Charles Rosen's introduction to The Classical Style), but I'd prefer to concentrate on what you hear. For now, just accept it as a fact, or read Rosen.

Given the weak tonality, how does Vaughan Williams make the movement cohere? One answer is through motific and rhythmic contrast. A roadmap to the movement follows:

Exposition of the first subject group (0:00):

a. A horn call with a distinctive dotted rhythm, associated in the opera with the Celestial City
b. A rising answer on the high strings
c. A cadential figure beginning and ending on C in the cellos and basses (0:19)
d. Slightly later (0:41), a descending theme on the violins.

All these themes are combined, often in canon. The rhythm of the horn call hardly ever leaves the texture. In fact, this symphony shows great contrapuntal resource throughout, although not as flashy as in the 4th Symphony. The exposition is repeated and varied (1:12). In the course of this section Vaughan Williams modulates to some rather distant keys, and yet the harmonies feel almost stable. This I believe due to the isolation of the texture into separate planes of sound, mentioned earlier.

The horn call leads to a radiant E Major and the second subject group (3.19):

e. A chorale theme (VW's hymn tune "Sine Nomine" disguised), from the "House Beautiful" scene (accompanying the Interpreter's "An open door shall be set before thee and no man may shut it")
f. A subordinate "Dresden Amen" (C D F E D C) figure
g. A descending minor 3rd (Eb Db C), associated with the words "Beelzebub" in the opera. It appears at the very end of the second exposition.

This is a more, song-like section, with a stronger sense of closure. Toward the end, the music darkens with a slightly sinister version of the horn call (a) (4:34) in the bassoons. This leads to the "Beelzebub" 3rd (g) (4:50).

Motive (c) leads to an extended quick section (5:10) based on (c), (g), and a moto perpetuo scurrying in the strings (sinister mice) based on (d). This section, fairly short, takes the place of the classical development.

Around 7:05, it winds down to the horn call and the first subject group for a last extended go-round leading to a glorious outburst of the "Sine Nomine" and "Dresden Amen" (8:13). Vaughan Williams plays with the second group longer than at first, and the section winds down with (d) (9:22). The "Beelzebub" theme starts (9:45), but gets cut to a semitone, thus showing an unexpected relationship with the horn call – its dark reflection.

At 10:21, the horn call returns, and we are into the coda, which works mainly with (a) and (d), until the movement fades into the distance. It hasn't ended so much as simply left us behind.

Second Movement - Scherzo

Music history books will tell you that the Beethoven scherzo took over from the minuet and trio movement of the classical symphony. This is true enough, but not really the whole story. At any rate, both the scherzo and the minuet work by playing off two main sets of ideas. In addition, Haydn works a variation by having a minuet withtwo trios. So now you know that a trio is a section that contrasts to the minuet or scherzo. Why is it called a trio? Originally, the contrasting section was written in three parts, fewer than the minuet or scherzo itself, frequently (in Lully, for example) for two oboes and bassoon. You can find a really good, well-known example of this in the last movement of the Bach first Brandenburg concerto. Anyway, the section usually supplied a lighter contrast, but by the modern period this was simply generalized to "the contrasting section." It didn't have to be more lightly scored. Certainly, this is not the case with Vaughan Williams' movement. In fact, the climax of the movement occurs in a trio.

The classical composer laid out the scherzo with 2 trios in the following way :

a. Scherzo (usually in triple time, by the way)
b. Trio 1 (sometimes in duple time)
c. Scherzo
d. Trio 2
e. Scherzo

This is known schematically as A B A C (or B') A. Vaughan Williams elides this to A B A (truncated) C B'.

Again, the movement seems to start from nowhere out of rising 4ths. These lead to a rollicking theme (0:20), which tends to insist on a minor 3rd and which you actually get slightly earlier in a subordinate part (0:14). The passage dissolves into the rising 4ths again (0:40), treated imitatively. At 0:50, Vaughan Williams repeats the section.

At 1:01, you'll hear what might be described as a woodwind raspberry or, more politely, as bagpipe skirls. These will serve in the movement much like the rising 4ths as heralds of a new section. In this case, however, the skirls give way to the rising 4ths (1:48) which announce the first trio.

Out of a transitional minor-3rd theme comes a chordal, chorale-like motive (1:57). Vaughan Williams elaborates on this for a while. The passage dissolves into rising 4ths, again treated imitatively (3:05), which mark the return of the rollicking scherzo (3:23).

The scherzo gets cut short after about 10 seconds, with the intrusion of the bagpipe skirls (3:35), introducing a duple-time second trio, with attempts to re-establish triple time (3:55, 4:07) along the way. Eventually the trio dies to embers, leading to variants of the chorale and the rising 4ths (4:23). Triple time finally gets re-established (4:46) with flickering rising 4ths, but these lead to nothing new, finally ending in a quiet poof.

VW reveals himself in this movement a master orchestrator. In general, he contrasts a transparent, even wispy texture with great forward drive, at rather low volume. The low volume itself challenges players. One doesn't often hear a true pianissimo in live concert, although standards have certainly risen in my lifetime. That the Louisiana Philharmonic a good, but not first-rank orchestra, often does speaks volumes. Strings play largely at the unison or octave, and winds are usually reduced to solos or duets. When the winds get heavy, the strings drop out (more of these contrasting planes of sound). How anyone could think of this as clunky orchestration is beyond me, but one reviewer certainly did. It was "not music demanding great finesse or delicacy of tone" (Daily Telegraph, 1957). What in heaven's name was he listening to?

Third Movement: Romanza

The romanza is a short, lyrical instrumental composition "of an idyllic character," according to the Harvard Dictionary of Music. This movement more than lives up to its billing. Many slow movements are in the form A B A (known as song form): that is, they consist of an opening section, a contrasting middle section, and a return to the opening section again. The sections are seldom equal in length or weight. Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," if you know it, shows this form in little, as does Lennon-McCartney's "Michelle." In the Romanza, Vaughan Williams contrasts an idyllic mood (music from The Pilgrim's Progress Act I, Scene ii, "The House Beautiful") with great agitation (from Act I, Scene i; Pilgrim sings, "Save me, Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear").

The opening section plays with three ideas:

a. A theme given to the cor anglais
b. Rising 4ths, used mainly as transition (see the 2nd movement as well)
c. A broad tune, which has the family look of the Alleluias from "Sine Nomine," although it never actually declares its lineage

A gorgeous chord progression announces a melody in the cor anglais (the opening is, as far as I can tell, note for note from the introduction to the House Beautiful scene). At 0:47, rising 4ths lead to a broad tune in the strings (0:50) which subsides into the flute, oboe, cor anglais, and clarinet playing the rising 4ths once more (1:48). This leads to a repeat of the opening section (2:09). Now the cor anglais theme sounds in the strings (low register of the violins), and we get a bigger statement of the broad tune.

Just as the primarily transitional rising 4ths in the scherzo blossomed into an extended passage, so they do here (3:59), led by the oboe and joined by all the winds in a remarkable passage of "free-for-all" conversation. Of course, it takes a master contrapuntalist to make this bit sound as casual as it does. Vaughan Williams works in much the same idiom in the opening to his "Flos Campi."

At any rate, this leads to the agitated passage in the strings (the B section), against rising 4ths and chromatic runs in the winds. It begins to die down, as the brass, led by the horn (5:43), takes up the cor anglais tune.

Rising 4ths fortissimo in the strings (6:22) lead to a return to the opening music (6:38) and more agitation. At 7:26, the broad tune sings again, this time in extended treatment. Here is the climax to the movement.

At 9:15, the opening chords sound for the last time. The movement begins to wind down. A violin introduces his solo with rising 4ths (9:30). Against shimmering strings (9:55), the cor anglais tune comes back in the horn, and the movement ends (10:12) with fragments of the broad tune.

Forth Movement: Passacaglia

A passacaglia is a musical form which repeats a bass line (usually in triple time) throughout. Against the fixed bass, it varies the upper parts. The last movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in e is a passacaglia, though that work also uses a harmonic progression as a fixed point.

VW's passacaglia resembles more Purcell's "chaconies." It depends less on harmony than does the Brahms. The jargon calls it more "horizontal." In fact, it's not, strictly speaking, a passacaglia at all, although it follows the form in its opening.

The passacaglia theme begins, as usual, in the bass – a descending line. A bit in, a rising counter-melody sneaks in through the upper parts (0:12). It will have tremendous consequences in the movement. This reaches a small climax after about 5 repetitions, at which point the bass fragments into pizzicato. Three more repetitions follow, rising to a fanfare motive (1:51). This fanfare motive is related to the finale of Vaughan Williams' "Dona nobis pacem" – the vision of Isaiah: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation" and "Open to me the gates of righteousness" – and to the scene of the Arming of the Pilgrim from the opera. This plays against the passacaglia's counter-melody (hereafter referred to as the counter-melody).

At this point (2:17), Vaughan Williams gives up the passacaglia, with about seven more minutes left in the movement. We get an imitative section on the passacaglia theme (referred to from now on as "the passacaglia"), which again leads to the fanfare (2:40). The fanfare combines with the passacaglia and the counter-melody.

The fanfare reaches a climax which quickly deflates to an agitated version of the passacaglia on clarinet (3:39) and other winds. This is (sort of) a B section. The rumblings grow to three outcries of this version at 4:52, 5:11, and 5:18. We hear a disturbed version of the counter-melody, leading to a large climax on the passacaglia (5:41).

This breaks into music from the first movement – the Preludio (6:03) -- like waves against a rock. We are coming to the end, although I hesitate calling this a coda. It's a necessary outgrowth of the movement itself. Wisps of themes from the first movement float around, including (I.d) (6:34 and 6:44), the opening horn call (I.a) (6:55), and (I.b) (7:05).

The reminiscence of the symphony's opening leads to a quiet extended fantasia (7:13) on the counter-melody, fanfare, and fragments of the passacaglia. The movement ends with the high strings taking off into the aether.

Such an unusual musical structure which comes off with such success shows a composer who has mastered form to such an extent, it's in his blood. He dictates the form, rather than allowing the form to dictate the music.

Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz

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