Vaughan-Williams: the Greatest Symphonist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958) isn’t exactly a footnote in the musical history books, nor is he a one-hit wonder.  Nevertheless, he is still somewhat neglected in the concert halls (in the States, anyway), which rarely play his 9 symphonies, preferring his lighter works such as The Lark Ascending or Fantasia from Greensleves (fine works though they are).  The reason for his neglect is hard to fathom.  His music is full of gorgeous, memorable melodies, yet is hardly a throwback to 19th century Romanticism, being bold, exciting, and often dissonant.  Almost every bar of Vaughan-Williams’ music bears his unique thumbprint, and you couldn’t mistake him for anyone else, though others have freely borrowed from him (including his near-namesake, John Williams, the film composer).  He wrote in almost every form imaginable, leaving masterpiece after masterpiece: a gorgeous concerto for two (!) pianos, an outsized ballet on the Book of Job, folk-like chamber works, and numerous stand-alone orchestral works, such as the monumental Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which pits a solo string quartet against a string orchestra.  Yet it is as a symphonist that Vaughan-Williams found his truest voice.  These nine works sing out with incredible power and beauty, but also a sense of deep morality.  They seem, in some respects, to represent the voice of England’s conscience during the first 5 decades of the 20th century.  From the wide-eyed, philosophic Sea Symphony (No.1) to the stark, sometimes sardonic, mystical Ninth Symphony, his works seem a call to arms; not to fighting for king and country, perhaps, but as a witness to humanity’s horror and heroism.  Like his contemporary, the Russian composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, Vaughan-Williams wrote for his generation in a voice they would understand, and that we, listening backward from the ‘future,’ can appreciate as one of the great hallmarks of orchestral literature.

Adrian Boult was one of Vaughan-Williams’ greatest interpreters, and we’re fortunate to have many recordings from his baton.  Recently, Amazon put out a compilation of Boult’s earliest recordings of Vaughan-Williams’ symphonies for just $5.99.  The sound, being a bit old, is still quite serviceable, though the interpretations are all first rate.  This is an ideal way to become acquainted with these works and to behold the incredible depth and beauty of his music.  Here’s a quick run-through of each work before you begin if you don’t know them yet:

Symphony No.1, “A Sea Symphony” (1904-09): in some ways, this is Vaughan-Williams’ most backward-looking symphony, as it conjures up the Victorian choral tradition of Elgar, Stanford, and others.  Yet it’s a very eccentric work, quite long and quite mercurial, changing moods quickly and defiantly.  It opens with a fiery clarion call in the horns, which is immediately answered by the chorus, singing: “Behold—the Sea!”  The first few minutes of this symphony are some of the most spine-tingling choral music in the canon.  The heroic mood fades to a jaunty march, which is developed as a rollicking sea shanty.  The slow movement reflects on the mysteries of the oceans in a quite moving fashion, to be followed by a quicksilver scherzo (slightly redolent of Mendelssohn’s choral work in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), to conclude with a long, epic finale.  Though some find this work too ponderous to get through, it’s supremely imaginative and helps if you follow along with the text—all taken from Whitman’s poetry. 

Symphony No.2, “A London Symphony” (1911-13, though revised for decades): one of his most famous symphonies (on CD, anyway), as it recounts the sights and sounds of his hometown in gorgeous orchestral colors.  It is immediately more modern than the First Symphony, especially in the first orchestral outburst a few minutes in, representing the ‘rush hour’ of Piccadilly.  The slow movement is a gorgeous nocturne, very much in his Lark Ascending vein; the scherzo opens light as a feather, to be interrupted by another sea-shanty march.  The finale, much more compact than the First Symphony, is still just as epic and heroic.  An out-and-out masterpiece. 

Symphony No.3, “Pastoral” (1921): far from evoking the impressions of the countryside ala Beethoven, this symphony is deeply nostalgic and anguished.  It seems to mourn for a world lost in the violence of WWI, as well as the general tumult of the Twentieth-Century.  The gorgeous opening movement is almost like chamber music, with instruments trading solos over the shimmering orchestral backdrop.  A slow, brooding second movement follows, like a figure treading over the moors in a deep fog.  The third movement introduces a little good humor into the proceedings, as it is another folk-like march, short-lived, but full of life.  This is cut short by the haunting finale, which introduces a wordless soprano who sings of a universal sadness.  Her voice pierces through the gloom, and for a time, the music becomes hopeful, even romantic, before the orchestra cries out and the mood descends to the soprano’s lament once again.  Many critics, notably Aaron Copland, decried this as “cows looking over the fence music”—since not much happens.  Perhaps not in the traditional sense, yet an attentive listener will hear an entire world in this symphony—and one that ends all too soon. 

Symphony No.4 (1931-34): the first symphony without a subtitle, it is his angriest utterance: like Sibelius’ Fourth, it’s ‘modern,’ angular, dissonant, and takes no prisoners.  It opens with a harsh blast from the entire orchestra, which storms with more fury than Mars from Holst’s The Planets (not surprisingly, the two were great friends).  The anger subsides in a truly harrowing slow movement, quiet but deeply agitated.  The scherzo is the true highlight of the piece, a dashing syncopated wonder that hints at jazz and dance music.  It’s defiant and angry—and incredibly cool.  The finale is a blitzkrieg of motion as well, ending in a shattering blast from the orchestra.  Though Vaughan-Williams refused to say this was a symphony against or about war, the message is clear: ignorance and hatred leads to violence and death.  Here Vaughan Williams evokes the muse of Shostakovich, whose own 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th symphonies were on the same theme, and share something of the same musical language. 

Symphony No.5 (1938-43): no subtitle, but one could almost call it Pastoral No.2.  It’s his most famous symphony and it is truly, deeply gorgeous.  Almost painfully so.  To me, it remains his most profound utterance, full of endless melody and a sense of epic stillness.  We hear this in the opening, which begins in a whisper, only gradually unraveling in a triumphant climax.  The scherzo is surprisingly pert and witty, almost coy in its episodic humor.  Unlike the bitterness of the Fourth Symphony, here Vaughan-Williams remembers happier days—and the consoling nature of friendship.  The slow movement steals the show, however.  It is borrowed from an aria from an opera he was writing on The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Not surprisingly, it his deeply spiritual, opening with an anguished but goose-flesh inducing English horn melody.  This is taken up by the entire orchestra by turns, and never loses a sense of timeless wisdom being spoken by a great sage.  The music/orchestration here reminds me a bit of his one-time teacher, Ravel, in its transparency and veiled eroticism.  The finale returns to a heroic/epic mood, ending in a blaze of glory.  Most believed that this would be Vaughan-Williams’ swan song; he was already quite old when he wrote it, and after such a piece, what more could one hope to say or write? 

Symphony No.6 (1944-47): Vaughan-Williams stunned the musical world by writing a sequel of sorts to No.4, another angry, almost satirical work, yet without losing the magic of No.5.  The symphony opens with a turbulent cry, almost as if in the middle of a battlefield.  Listen for the gorgeous slow-down half-way through that yields the greatest melody in the entire symphony (and one of his greatest, hands-down).  The slow movement is almost frightening in its intensity, centering on a drumbeat that gets louder and louder, then softer and softer.  Clearly, the dropping of bombs is not far away.  Another movement follows, not a slow movement, but a relentless “dance of death” that echoes jazz—possibly from a radio in the soldier’s quarters.  Then comes the most daring movement in his entire output, and one of the most astonishing in any symphony: a finale of almost absolute pianissimo.  Like the aftermath of a bomb, we hear fragments of melodies whispering in the distance, but nothing of hope, passion, or despair.  The music is spent.  Like ghosts, the notes flit lethargically to and fro, yet ultimately fade into nothingness by the end.  It was one thing for Tchaikovsky to end his Sixth Symphony with a slow movement, but it was a gorgeous one: here, it’s not just slow but dead.  Again, it evokes the terror of an apocalyptic aftermath, and is hard to listen to as background music. 

Symphony No.7, “Sinfonia Antarctica” (1949-52): finally, we’re back to a subtitled symphony!  This symphony is his most eclectic, as its based on music he wrote for the film Scott of the Antarctic.  Needless to say, it’s his most dramatic and outgoing symphony, full of atmospheric effects (a wind machine, another wordless soprano) and a real sense of man vs. nature.  The first movement evokes the sublime terror of the arctic wastes; the second movement is a kind of “scherzo of the penguins”; the third movement is the heart of the piece, an eerie, slow introduction to an avalanche of orchestral power, complete with booming organ; the fourth movement is a romantic intermezzo reflecting a letter Scott wrote to his wife in the film; and the finale is a desperate act of heroic defiance, even though the heroes are doomed to an icy grave.  Vaughan-Williams prefaced each movement with a famous English poem, from Shakespeare to Donne, just in case we don’t have the movie for reference.  Neither is needed for this powerful score—just ears and a heart (popcorn doesn’t hurt, either!). 

Symphony No.8 (1953-55): his most neglected symphony is another film-like evocation, though it has no obvious source.  Here, Vaughan-Williams explores different orchestral sonorities in each movement, so that the symphony sounds more like a series of stories following some cryptic theme.  The first movement opens with tubular bells (never before used by him) to create a mystical tableau: the music is hard to describe, though it mirrors the opening movement of No.7 somewhat; nature in its more sublime aspect is perhaps the most obvious impression.  The second movement is a brazen march for wind instrument alone, though ultimately tuneful and good-natured.  The slow movement is for strings alone, a quiet, thoughtful dirge.  Then comes the brief finale, scored for every percussion instrument imaginable.  It makes quite a glorious racket, though Vaughan-Williams keeps it just in check. 

Symphony No.9 (1956-57): finally, his true symphonic swan-song, and one of the most powerful works of the set.  It’s epic without being heroic, like a grizzled old sage shouting pronouncements to the world.  More than anything, the spirit of this symphony seems to evoke the character of Merlin as portrayed in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  Though still beautiful, the music has a tinge of disappointment, as if reflecting the life of a man who lives backwards (Merlin has experienced the future before the past), and knows how little present hope pays off in the end.  The opening movement is timeless in the sense of the Sixth’s slow movement, but much louder and purposeful—clearly, there is work to be done, however futile.  The second movement is a strident, almost satiric march, evoking the second movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.  A grim slow movement follows, again contemplating the wonders and terrors of nature, perhaps.  Then the finale, another ambiguous, mystical utterance.  Is it hope or despair?  Heroism or indifference?  Repeated listens may reveal the answer...

Enjoy these wonderful symphonies which are among the greatest sets by any composer, standing head-to-head with late Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler’s Nine, and Sibelius’ Seven.  So why do we listen to them so seldom in concert halls?  Possibly because they don’t offer easy answers: no heroism or derring-do here, but a lot of beauty, caution, and introspection.  It’s not for everyone, but if you love powerful music and an original mind, you simply can’t be without it.