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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – Symphony No. 8
Vaughan Williams’s homespun but wholly commendable guiding principle was that “a composer’s art should be an expression of the whole life of the community”. Clearly, he also believed that the community’s life is rooted in its past – because, for the basis of his art, he made a bee-line for the long, communal traditions of English folk-song and the music of Sixteenth Century composers.
This was no dewy-eyed fancy. During the late Nineteenth Century, England became stigmatised as “Das Land Ohne Musick” (“The Land without [its own] Music”). This didn’t go down too well with a rising generation of red-blooded English composers, men such as VW, Gerald Finzi, George Butterworth, Ernest Moeran and John Ireland.
Their common strategy was to start again, from identifiably indigenous English music that pre-dated the rise of the then dominant German influence. Such composers were classed as “English Pastoralists”. Through many wonderful works – such as his mystical Tallis Fantasia (1910), idyllic The Lark Ascending (1914-20) and ruddy-cheeked English Folk-Song Suite (1923) – VW emerged as a leading light.
Over the years, VW suffered a few barbs: Philip Heseltine said that the Third Symphony (1921, VW’s “elegy for a lost generation”) reminded him of “a cow looking over a gate”, a viewpoint reversed by Aaron Copland, who thought the Fifth (1943) was “like staring at a cow for 45 minutes”.
VW was utterly unfazed. After all, he wasn’t snuggling cosily in any Tudor Arcady – works like Job (1930) had given pastoralism a “modern” aspect, whilst the Fourth Symphony (1935) mutated that moo-cow into a raging bull laying waste to an entire china-shop – presumably to the consternation of Yehudi Menuhin, who regarded English music as “a very human music, not given to shattering utterances”!
In the 1950s, storm-clouds gathered. Lecturing at Dartington, Elisabeth Lutyens referred to pastoralists as “the Cow-pat School”. This symptomised a feeling, amongst the increasingly influential post-war “progressives”, that pastoralism had led English music up a blind alley, isolating it from the musical mainstream.
This was, of course, absolute tosh. Pastoralists were simply nationalists, like Smetana and Dvorák, or Kodaly and Bartók – and were they accused of “isolationism”? Of course not – after all, they weren’t English, were they? Any blame lay at the door of the pre-war “progressives”, who clearly hadn’t done their job properly. Nevertheless, VW was fingered as the main culprit, and the music of this well-loved “grand old man” subsequently slithered into entirely undeserved disrepute.
For this reason, I like to think of the Eighth Symphony (1953-5) as “An English Artist’s Reply to Unjust Criticism”. Although it must have hurt him, VW, seemingly serenely indifferent to his detractors, carried on his merry way and produced a radiant, vibrant celebration of pastoralism. He let his aural imagination run riot, burnishing the “bit of French polish” he’d got from Ravel – over 50 years previously! – until it glowed as never before.
A private run-through (1955) provoked some consternation – and, from a friendly critic, a question. Wryly, VW replied, I feel the thing is a symphony, and it is going to remain one.” Apparently the naughty VW had contravened standing orders, deciding against sonata form for his first movement [1]. Well, speaking strictly for myself, I feel that the thing is a concerto for orchestra, and in my ears it will remain one, no matter what you call it!
1. Fantasia: Variazioni senza Tema. VW considered this to be “seven variations in search of a theme”. Surely, he was leg-pulling – the opening four-note trumpet motive, immediately clothed in exotic percussion colours, may be more a motive than a definite melody, but it is nevertheless the theme. Venturing far and wide, VW proceeds both to work it like plasticine – bending and stretching, squashing and twisting it – or using it as a skeleton to support other (sometimes derivative) material. This tour de force of the composer’s art is closed neatly by the return of the “indefinite theme”.
As befits a “concerto for orchestra”, the remaining movements spotlight, in turn, the orchestra’s wind sections, bowed strings, and percussion:
2. Scherzo alla Marcia (per Stromenti a Fiato). A woodwind “clog-dance”, twisting and turning on the village green, is soon superseded by a cheery trumpet tune – the archetypal brass band, tiddly-om-pom-pomming its jolly way along the prom-prom-prom. But then VW, maybe mindful of that missing sonata, side-steps any regulation repeats and instead treats his themes to a roller-coaster ride of lively – and largely fugal – development!
The Trio’s lilting tune comes within an imperial inch of quoting from the Sixth Symphony (the melody later popularised by the TV drama, “A Family at War”). Thence, without further ado, straight into the coda, in whose final frayed phrase VW seems to say, “And that’ll be enough of that.”
3. Cavatina [2] (per Stromenti ad Arco). Is this just a pastoral “interlude”, or is VW trying to tell us something? The music is haunting – a richly evocative, modally-inflected melody of VW’s finest vintage. It’s also haunted – by the wraiths of such as Tallis and Job, the shade of a lark ascending, the ripening of ghostly cherries. These induce various passions: surges of love, nostalgia, perhaps regret, maybe even umbrage. We can picture VW, musing by the fireside, “Surely, what I’ve done isn’t all that bad, is it?” In the finale, he answers his own question . . .
4. Toccata . . . “No, it jolly well isn’t!” – and leaves no stop unpulled in proving his point. VW dragoons “all the 'phones and 'spiels known to [him]”, including tubular bells, xylophone, celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone and three tuned gongs (but not a kitchen sink, though I dare say one could easily be accommodated). Far from gratuitous, though, this lavish instrumentation is brilliantly integrated with the thematic materials, to echo the celebratory clangour of church bells – which is a universally recognised connotation!
VW’s claimed “sinister” aspect – presumably lurking in the deep, dark, bronzed counter-phrases – could be regarded as a timely reminder that his pastoralism is not just “pobs”, but proper chewing meat. However, for me it simply adds some ballast to the proceedings. In these circumstances a bit of civic pomp is no bad thing, eh?
© Paul Serotsky, 2009
[1] In fact, all four movements seem to avoid conventional symphonic forms.
[2] “Cavatina”: in non-vocal music, a song-like movement. However, VW’s continually evolving movement corresponds closely to the original meaning – an operatic aria in one section (rather than three), and without any repetition of words or phrases.
Recommended recording: Just a month after giving the première, Barbirolli and the Hallé made a superb recording which, coupled with their equally commendable, contemporaneous recording of A London Symphony, is available, superbly remastered, on Dutton CDSJB 1021. .

© Paul Serotsky
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