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  • Graham Abbott

The Symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams

In classical music, we concern ourselves with a truly vast amount of art. It’s easy for some pockets of the repertoire to be ignored simply by virtue of the fact that there’s so much of it. If a composer is at the same time regarded as unfashionable, then some great masterpieces can go unnoticed.


These are the sorts of issues at the back of my mind when I approach the music of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (He pronounced “Ralph” as “Rafe”). Born in 1872, Vaughan Williams is largely remembered today for a small handful of popular works; among these are The Lark Ascending and the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. He was able to compose in an accessible, popular style on the one hand, and in a deeper, more personal and less-populist style on the other. To tar Vaughan Williams with the “English pastoral” brush is to do him a grave disservice. Certainly he wrote comfortably and often in what we glibly call the English pastoral style, but there are many works in the Vaughan Williams canon which bear testimony to his true individuality and his true claim to be part of the international mainstream of western music. The backbone of this claim are his nine symphonies, and it’s these symphonies which I want to survey here.


Vaughan Williams called his first symphony A Sea Symphony. It is a huge work, for chorus, soloists and an enormous orchestra, lasting well over an hour. Setting poetry by Walt Whitman, the work falls into the traditional four movements of a symphony, and it was premiered at the Leeds festival on the composer’s 38th birthday: 12 October 1910.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1913)

The Sea Symphony immediately confirmed the prominent place Vaughan Williams had begun to hold in the preceding few years as one of the leading British composers. What is truly remarkable about it is the breadth of its vision. Far from being just about ships, waves and water, the work takes the visionary poetry of Walt Whitman and uses the sea as a metaphor for man’s journey into eternity. The enormous finale traverses truly eternal concepts of life and death and is to my mind one of the greatest things Vaughan Williams ever wrote. I’ve been chorusmaster for this magnificent work once or twice (a great way to learn it!) and conducted it once. There are no words for how exciting it is.


Listen to A Sea Symphony here.

Read more about it here.


Gustav Mahler famously told Jean Sibelius that a symphony should contain the entire world and in the Sea Symphony Vaughan Williams seems to view the symphonic form the same way. However his next essay in the form he stayed very much closer to home.


A London Symphony was first performed in 1914, and revised substantially by the composer in 1920 and again in 1936. Again, Vaughan Williams casts the work in the traditional four movements, but there are no voices this time. He managed in his second symphony to write a work which is simultaneously programmatic (there are clear and obvious references to London) while also being “pure” music which can be enjoyed for itself without needing to know about the London connections. This was a constant tussle in the public’s acceptance of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies over his entire career; people were forever conjecturing as to what they were “about”, when they didn’t really need to be “about” anything. In the London Symphony both approaches happily co-exist.


Far from being the predictable colour of Edwardian tweed, this work is full of variety in both its boisterous and more meditative moments. There’s also deep anguish; the city isn’t seen as being all fun and games. The third movement is curiously titled as both a scherzo and a nocturne. In the minds of some these two terms might appear contradictory, but one can have fast music (implied by the term “scherzo”) at night (“implied by the term “nocturne”). With regard to this movement Vaughan Williams said, “if the hearer will imagine himself standing on the Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of the Strand, with its great hotels on one side, and the New Cut on the other, with its crowded streets and flaring lights, it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement”. Note that Vaughan Williams didn’t say that this was what this music is about; he merely offered these images as a key to its mood.


Listen to A London Symphony here.

Read more about it here.

Rothenstein: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1919)

Vaughan Williams volunteered and saw active service during the first world war (he turned 42 in 1914). He served in France as a medical orderly, and when he came to write his third symphony these experiences underpinned the creation of a frequently-misunderstood masterwork.


Called A Pastoral Symphony, the third is often assumed to be pastoral in the same sense as Beethoven’s sixth: fields and brooks, birdsong and happy shepherds. It was commenced in France in 1916 and premiered in 1922. The music is generally quiet and understated, but in 1938 the composer wrote to his future wife Ursula about the piece, giving his view of its emotional origins: “It’s really wartime music, a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset - it’s not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted.” The respected British writer Michael Kennedy described the Pastoral Symphony as Vaughan Williams’ war requiem for the 1914-18 conflict. In addition to the orchestra there is one voice, a wordless soprano who is heard offstage in the last movement. To paraphrase Kennedy, this music is light years away from a pleasant contemplation of the Cotswolds or visions of “cows looking over gates”. It really does seem to distil the pity of war.


Listen to A Pastoral Symphony here.

Read more about it here.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1921)

Most listeners seemed to miss entirely the connection of the Pastoral Symphony with the Great War. It contained much, however, which hinted at Vaughan Williams’ direction over the following decade. The pleasant niceties were giving way to a tougher, more acerbic harmonic language. Yet when the fourth symphony was first performed in 1935 people were still shocked at its blatantly aggressive and dissonant mood.


The fourth was immediately viewed by commentators as being a musical reaction to the rising tide of totalitarianism in Europe in the 30s. Again, people insisted that the piece had to be “about” something, that there had to be some explanation for its apparent violence. In 1937 Vaughan Williams denied this interpretation. He said, “I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external - e.g. the state of Europe - but simply because it occurred to me like that.” There is clear evidence that Vaughan Williams wanted to write something new within an established form, something Beethoven did most famously in his third and fifth symphonies. There are in fact strong structural parallels between Vaughan Williams’ fourth and Beethoven’s fifth, but there’s no denying that even the composer was slightly taken aback at what he’d created. At the rehearsals he was overheard saying, “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant.”


Listen to Symphony No 4 here.

Read more about it here.


Of course, “the state of Europe” in the 30s led to the second world war, and it was during the war - in 1943 - that Vaughan Williams conducted the first performance of his next symphony, the fifth. On the surface, having gone through the Blitz and in the midst of wartime stress, the musical world might have feared something even more violent from the composer. But in the fifth symphony Vaughan Williams surprised them again. He didn’t write a work which reflected what they had; he wrote a work about what they dreamed for.


Much of the fifth symphony draws its melodic inspiration from Vaughan Williams’ then-unfinished opera The Pilgrim’s Progress. (The opera was eventually completed and premiered in 1951.) The story of a pilgrim seeking heaven in the midst of earthly uncertainties was an allegory not only the Christian life but of the daily lives of all the people of Britain at the time. Its unashamed return to Vaughan Williams’ beloved pastoral mode has made the fifth the most popular of his symphonies, but it had its detractors. American composer Aaron Copland didn’t get it; he said it was "like staring at a cow for 45 minutes". But the people of wartime London most definitely did get it. It provided those who heard it with much-needed calm; if you like, it was therapeutic. I’ve conducted it a couple of times and it’s a work very close to my heart.


Listen to Symphony No 5 here.

Read more about it here.


Vaughan Williams dedicated the fifth symphony “without permission” to Jean Sibelius. When he heard the work in Stockholm, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sibelius wrote, “The symphony is a marvellous work...the dedication made me feel proud and grateful...I wonder if Dr Williams has any idea of the pleasure he has given me?”


“Pleasure” is a term not often used to describe people’s reactions to Vaughan Williams’ next symphony, the sixth. At the time of the premiere of the fifth (which the composer himself conducted) Vaughan Williams was in his early 70s. The musical world tended to regard the apparent return to pastoralism in the fifth symphony as a summation of - and closure to - his life’s work. How wrong they were.


Vaughan Williams worked on the sixth symphony in the mid-1940s and it was first performed in London in April 1947. By this time the composer was 75 and again he managed to startle his public. The sixth, in the words of Michael Kennedy, “exploded into our ears”. The work is dynamic, powerful, even violent, and ends with such desolation that it was hailed as a response the second world war, the first post-Hiroshima symphony.


Vaughan Williams, in his usual fashion, rejected all such programmatic interpretations, just as he had with the fourth symphony. To one friend he summed up the work with a quote from Shakespeare: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by sleep.” The work is enigmatic, enabling the individual listener to interpret it as they will. There is no doubt, though, that it’s magnificent. And, interestingly, for all its darkness, the sixth symphony received 100 performances within two years, something accorded no other English symphony of the time. It certainly seemed to be saying something.


Listen to Symphony No 6 here.

Read more about it here.


One of the new directions Vaughan Williams undertook late in his life was the composition of film music. He was 70 before he wrote his first film score but he took to the medium enthusiastically, and in all he wrote music for eleven films between 1940 and 1957. In 1947 - the year of the premiere of the sixth symphony - he was composing music for Scott of the Antarctic, which starred John Mills. The subject of Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole in 1912 moved him deeply and his music for the film is particularly powerful.


In 1949, rather than attempting to work up some of the film music into a concert suite, Vaughan Williams hit upon the idea of using themes from the film to create his next symphony, his seventh. He titled it in Italian, calling it Sinfonia Antartica. (The spelling “Antartica” is correct in Italian.)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1949)

The five movements of the symphony each have a text motto which in some performances is read aloud by an actor or the conductor. They cover a journey, from setting off heroically to defy “forces which seem omnipotent”, to encountering ocean life and overwhelming landscapes, remembering a life left behind, and finally being defeated by the awesome power of nature. The work uses a very large orchestra and a wordless female chorus with solo soprano. The central movement, where the solo organ depicts an overwhelming barrier of ice, is so vivid in its musical pictures as to make film almost unnecessary.


Listen to Sinfonia Antartica here.

Read more about it here.

Read more about Scott of the Antarctic here.


The Antarctic symphony was first performed in 1953, when the composer was 80. His experience in film music over the preceding decade or more had encouraged him to experiment at an age many composers would be considering - or have long undertaken - retirement. The use of percussion in the seventh symphony in particular was symptomatic of Vaughan Williams’ delight in the use of new instrumental colours and this continued with the eighth symphony, which was composed between 1953 and 1955 and first performed in 1956. It’s a compact, tightly-constructed work lasting only half an hour but it’s amazingly diverse and intense.


Vaughan Williams called the first movement “seven variations in search of a theme”, while the second movement, the scherzo, uses only the wind and brass instruments. The third movement is the slow movement, using strings only and suggesting the famous “Passion chorale” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion.. The finale is a brilliant toccata which flirts between the major and minor key. It uses the full orchestra and gives pride of place to the percussion.


Listen to Symphony No 8 here.

Read more about it here.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1954)

Vaughan Williams was 83 when the eighth symphony was premiered in 1956. Yet he straight away started work on a ninth symphony which was completed in 1957. It’s hard not to see it as a summing up of Vaughan Williams’ life work, seeing as it’s his last symphony, but there is even here the impression of him entering a new phase of his creative life, of exploring the new while revisiting the old. Michael Kennedy describes it as “the music of a still vigorous and visionary mind”. There’s no conscious sense of an end; as soon as he finished the symphony he started work on a three-act opera.


Here again, orchestral colour is paramount. The use of a trio of saxophones and a solo flugel horn (the latter more commonly found in brass bands) adds to the colour of much of the score.


Listen to Symphony No 9 here.

Read more about it here.


Initial public reaction to the ninth was negative and to this day it is probably the least-played of the cycle. Many believed it showed Vaughan Williams was losing his creative powers. It is certainly an enigmatic work, but oh to be able to write something as eloquent as this and still be accused of failing powers!


The ninth symphony was premiered in April 1958 and the composer died four months later at the age of 85.

Ralph and Ursula Vaughan Williams

The nine symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams are only a part of an enormous, and enormously varied, life’s work. Yet they stand as the backbone to his creativity and his contribution to western music; they deserve to be not only better-known, but better-loved.


And if you have six hours to spare, someone has uploaded all nine symphonies into a single YouTube video! You’ll find it here.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2008.

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