> VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, the SYMPHONY and the SECOND WORLD WAR, Bill Hedley






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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, the SYMPHONY and the SECOND WORLD WAR, with a comparative CD review of the Symphony No. 5 in D
by Bill Hedley

"All I know is that it is what I wanted to do at the time."
RVW on his Fourth Symphony

"...one may hazard that the Fifth Symphony is Vaughan Williamsís greatest work because it is a quest that attains its goal."
Wilfrid Mellers

"What does this amazing symphony say, mean, want of us?"
Christopher Palmer on the Sixth Symphony

In trying to appreciate a difficult piece of music a logical starting point would seem to be what the composer himself had to say about it. Letís look at two of the greatest figures in twentieth century English music to see how this might work in practice. Britten rarely ventured into the written word, either to comment on his own music or on that of others, still less on other subjects, and he gave few interviews. When he did commit himself to print he didnít say much. Tippett, on the other hand, wrote a lot, about philosophy and politics, as well as his own music and the often complex issues behind it. He also wrote his own opera libretti. Opinion is sharply divided about the quality of Tippettís literary skills, but itís safe to say that many commentators believe he should have stuck to music.

Are we to rely on what composers have to say about their own works? They frequently seem so concerned with technical matters that their attempts at explanation result in overloaded phrases full of specialist language which mean little to the average music lover, helping hardly at all. In any case, to what extent does music have to be explained, and is the composer necessarily the best person to do this?

Reading National Music and other Essays makes clear that Ralph Vaughan Williams was an accomplished writer. The thoughts expressed are authoritative, yet they appear in an easily digested form, avoiding technical language whilst retaining substance. They are exceptionally readable; he was, as we say nowadays, a good communicator. The one disappointment is that his own music is only obliquely dealt with. This is a pity, since we need guidance on much of it.

Of the three symphonies associated with the period of the Second World War, the violence of the Fourth has been explained by many as the composerís response to the rising threat of another global conflict. The Fifth was given its first performance at the height of the war, yet it is one of the composerís most untroubled works, at least on the surface, closing in "pure blessedness" (Ottaway, p40). And then in the Sixth, composed in large part after the war, we find neither optimism nor hope, but something rather more akin to the mood of the Fourth, yet different: more complex in its effect and profoundly enigmatic.

The Fourth Symphony came as a shock to contemporary audiences, even if they sought to explain it by reference to the times. Many saw in the serenity of the Fifth an old manís farewell gesture to the world. The Sixth was the most perplexing of the three, and remains so for most of us, but if we look to the composer for help we are frustrated. On the subject of the Sixth Symphony he once said to Roy Douglas "It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music" (Kennedy, 1964, p302).

This was Vaughan Williamsí way, but it simply will not do. We may listen to Berliozí Symphonie Fantastique simply as a piece of music and gain much pleasure from it, but knowing the programme behind it helps us gain much more. In any case the programme forms an integral part of the work and of the composerís intentions. We may equally appreciate the beauties of Vaughan Williamsí Pastoral Symphony without knowing that it relates to his experiences in the First World War, but it helps enormously when we do. And Vaughan Williams did give it a name, after all, even if the name tells only part of the story and the composer chose not to divulge the rest for many years. This too was Vaughan Williamsí way. None of the three symphonies under discussion bears a name, and the composer gave few clues as to their meaning. Indeed, on the Sixth Symphony he wrote "I DO NOT BELIEVE IN meanings and mottoesÖ" (Kennedy, 1964, p302). This, along with his comment to Roy Douglas, would lead us to believe that he wanted these works to be heard without questioning their meaning, but is this really the right way, a responsible way of appreciating this music?

In the first part of this paper I want first to provide an introduction to the three wartime symphonies, Nos. 4, 5 and 6, with particular attention to No. 5; and second, to try to delve deeper into the question of what these works mean. I know there will be readers for whom this search is fruitless because unimportant.

Iíve recently been able to listen to and compare eighteen different recorded performances of the Fifth Symphony. The second part of my paper is a report on that privilege.

PART 1

Which of Vaughan Williamsí symphonies more properly finds its place in an edition of the Journal devoted to the Second World War? If we look at the dates, the Fourth Symphony was first performed in April 1935, the Fifth in June 1943 and the Sixth in April 1948. The Fourth is a work of shocking violence; the Sixth likewise, with an added, otherworldly, cold deadness about it; and the Fifth, for the most part, is radiant and serene and filled with the spirit of human goodness and hope. Yet itís the Fifth which most occupied the composer during the actual war years.

Vaughan Williams wrote that he began the Fourth in 1931 and completed it in 1934. Although this was undoubtedly a turbulent period of European history, Kennedy reminds us (p230) that he began work on it two years before Hitler came to power in Germany, and the work must have been taking shape in his mind for some time before that.

The general reaction to this tumultuous piece was, as we know, one of shock. Yet if the public were unprepared for the apparent change in style this music brought with it, they should not have been, as signs were present in a number of earlier works, in the Piano Concerto, for example, in Sancta Civitas and especially, in Job. But we see that now with the benefit of hindsight, and in any case, nothing, not even Job, could have prepared the public for the opening of the Fourth Symphony: full orchestra, fortissimo, Cs in the bass, the most fundamental of notes, and above them D flats; in short, a crashing dissonance of a semitone, perhaps the harshest sound available to a composer. Dissonance in itself usually leads to consonance: a fourth resolving onto a third brings repose, a seventh resolving onto an octave, as at the end of the St Matthew Passion or Sibeliusí Seventh Symphony, brings finality. But here the resolution lasts only an instant until the dissonance take over again. The first subject group is made up of this and other motifs which share the same, uncompromising violence and which lead after a mercifully short time to an equally short full stop. The second subject, on the face of it, brings complete contrast: a huge, long-limbed, wide-ranging melody played in octaves by all the strings except the double basses, a huge melody of extremes, infused with extraordinary expressive and lyric power, yet whose accompaniment of chords does nothing to establish any notion of pulse. As it subsides, what little respite it has been able to create is soon dissipated by the return of the original mood. Its return leads in turn to the coda. Here the original clash between C in the bass and D flat above it is presented quite differently: the D flat music is filled out into chords played pianissimo by muted strings. The D flat eventually wins, for the moment, and the movement subsides into silence.

The slow movement presents us with no heart-warming melodies to sing on the way home, only fragments of themes, passed round from one to another in the orchestra, often over pizzicato bass, seemingly going not very far. The range of these melodies is restricted, claustrophobic, yet when, at the end of the movement, the solo flute presents its descending, closing phrases we realise that this has been our goal all along. I have found this movement one of the composerís hardest nuts to crack, so I was interested to read that after the first performance he said that Boult was the one who had created it: "Öhe himself had not known how it should go, but Adrian had." (UVW, p205)

One aspect of this symphony which is often missed is its humour: the scherzo and trio is a rollicking thing based on rising fourths. It is linked to the finale by a passage in which the timpani are put to the same use as did Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony, and the finale bursts on us in a similar way to the Beethoven work also. Humour is again present in the first part of this movement, in the oompa accompaniment for example, but it is humour of a darker kind: thereís not much lightness of touch here. The symphony ends with what the composer calls an Epilogo fugato, based on a four-note theme which is at once derived from the opening gesture of the symphony but which is also reminiscent of the four-note figure so often used by Bach and based on his own name. The music rises, as Michael Kennedy has memorably put it "to boiling-point" (p268) before the opening dissonances return, only to be summarily dismissed with a final chord of open fifths.

No description of this piece can hope to convey the impression it creates to someone who has never heard it. It is music which takes you by the throat, its own extraordinary energy drags you with it. But energy is of little use in music without logic, and its inner logic is equally irresistible: the return of the opening music at the end is stunning at every rehearing. No wonder the audience was in shock that first time.

We have seen that what the public perceived as a change of style was not so much a change as the logical outcome of many years of development, the seeds of the Fourth Symphony being present in earlier works. Contemporary critics seem to have been taken in too: it was, they said, dissonant yet already old-fashioned in not following the twelve note technique recently developed by Schoenberg. It was only later that the association with the rise of fascism, the threat of war, the idea of the symphony as a reflection of the times, began to be propagated. Even Boult, writing in the Musical Times in 1958 (Kennedy, p264) thought that the composer "foresaw the whole thing". But to what extent is this true?

We know from his exchanges with Holst that for Vaughan Williams the most important element of a musical work was not meaning as such, but beauty. He wrote in 1937 to R G Longman (Kennedy, 1964, p247) as follows: "...I do think it beautifulÖbecause we know that beauty can come from unbeautiful thingsÖ" "I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external Ė e.g. the state of Europe Ė but simply because it occurred to me like thisÖ" and "I donít think that sitting down and thinking about great things ever produces a great work of art (at least I hope not Ė because I never do soÖ) a thing just comes Ė or it doesnítÖ"

There is an innocence here which is very endearing, and Iím not in a position to deny the sincerity of Vaughan Williamsí words, nor would I want to. But it isnít enough to explain away the opening gesture of this symphony by saying only that that was how it occurred to him. I donít suggest that he read the papers one day and decided to compose a symphony about the threat of war, realising there and then that a grinding, semitonal dissonance was the perfect musical metaphor for it. But neither do I believe in a twentieth-century composer who simply strings notes together in the pursuit of beauty. I believe that "the state of Europe" had a profound effect on this composerís mind and that this, combined with stylistic developments which were already taking place within him, was why the Fourth Symphony occurred to him in the form it did.

The question of meaning is not necessarily a great deal easier to elucidate even when there are words involved. In his unaccompanied chanson La bataille, composed in 1515 to celebrate a French military victory, Clément Janequin vividly illustrated the words with cries and other noises to imitate the different sounds of battle. In his War Requiem of 1961 Brittenís task was to find music to convey, in Wilfred Owenís words, "the pity of War". These are both vocal works composed to texts, and in both cases the meaning of the music and the meaning of the text are identical. What Janequin had to express was relatively simple, because the words are simple. Brittenís subject, if not more complex, is more subtle, but accessible all the same, if only because the texts, those of Owen at least, are unequivocal in their message. But I think the meaning, or message, of Sancta Civitas is less clear. The text is certainly less direct, with many conflicting clues as to what it actually means, and the music seems stretched almost to bursting point trying to express ideas which are half-hidden and which perhaps cannot be expressed in words in any case. Did this music, too, simply occur to him like this?

Let us consider a work without text, from 1938, and therefore roughly contemporaneous with the Fifth Symphony, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Piano and Timpani by Bohuslav Martinu. As the threat to peace intensified, and in particular the threat to the composerís Czech homeland from which he was exiled, he was moved to compose a work of high tragedy. I donít think it fanciful to hear in this music fear, apprehension, despair and resignation. In this purely orchestral work the composer has been able to express universal ideas in a less exact, but no less intense way, than words would have made possible.

Itís a masterpiece, but I donít suppose its origins are to be found in a decision on the composerís part to write a piece about the imminent destruction of his homeland. But I do believe that it reflects the state of his mind and his preoccupations at the time he was composing it. Indeed, I donít see how this can be otherwise. I believe that a creative artist is bound to be affected by events around him. Vaughan Williams, with his profound concern for humanity, will have been affected by the gathering storm, and even if he resisted "sitting down and thinking about great things", the state of his mind, affected by the state of Europe, is, I believe, the key to the meaning of the extraordinary series of musical gestures which make up the Fourth Symphony.

The Sixth Symphony, like the Fourth, opens with a dramatic gesture played by the full orchestra, but we donít really know at first hearing what the nature of this gesture is. It opens with three notes rising in a fragment of a scale. How do they affect us? Do we find them uplifting? In fact, we donít have time to find anything, because straight away another music brushes them aside: busy, rushing semiquavers, displaced accents. From time to time the original gesture returns, but never for very long and never to any lasting effect. There isnít much to latch onto in the way of melody. The cellos have a go but it soon peters out. Then, at Figure 8, there is a more lyrical subject, but one which, in spite of its longer note values, stubbornly refuses to turn into a real tune, and which, in addition, returns obsessively and repeatedly to the same note, B. Soon the scurrying, unquiet music returns, the displaced accents again preventing the music settling to anything. The second subject returns on the brass, but the accompaniment undermines any lyrical quality it may have. Once again the fast music has the upper hand, and then, a remarkable moment, out of nowhere: the harp strums a couple of E major chords as accompaniment, at last, to the second subject properly allowed to flower into a long-breathed, even singable melody. It rises now, seemingly about to take wing, though the obsessive repeated return to the tonic, now an E, doesnít help much. Again it tries and seems almost to be succeeding when the unquiet music returns, and in the space of no more than three bars all that this melody has been aspiring to, all that it hoped to achieve (if we may so express it) is brutally destroyed, the movement ending with a return of the opening gesture, now seen for what it really is, disillusion, disappointment, destruction, passing through a harsh cadence to end on fortissimo unison Es, like a blow.

By this point we have had our moment of hope, and there wonít be any more. The second movement begins without a break. A three-note rhythmic motif dominates this movement and will not let go. A central section offers some respite, but so cold and inhuman, so totally lacking in hope or warmth is it that we are almost glad when the three-note motif returns.

The scherzo is extraordinary: rapid counterpoint, opaque; a constant cacophony removing all will, all ability to reason or reflection. The sheer number of notes is awe-inspiring. A saxophone interrupts its progress at one point to deliver a sort of perverted night-club solo, but otherwise it is page after page of quavers and semiquavers, constantly on the go, yet going nowhere; verbose, garrulous, but saying nothing.

It just runs out of steam in the end, and so begins the slow finale. Here we encounter an almost empty soundscape, wandering melodic lines which again lead nowhere, often one or two voices in counterpoint, pointless, lacking in direction, lacking in melody, and all that in a constant pianissimo senza crescendo. Itís a little like Neptune in The Planets, but in Holstís case there seems little doubt that humans are gazing at the distant planet. Here, human beings, human feelings, are absent, and when, at the close, two chords swing one to the other they could so easily continue to swing for a few hours (or an age or two) more. It would make little difference.

If Vaughan Williams had announced that this movement was meant to represent in music the aftermath of atomic warfare he would have been hailed as a genius who had succeeded one hundred per cent in his aim. But he didnít say that: in fact, he said nothing like it, gave no clue as to what, if anything, this most enigmatic of his works was meant to express. As we have seen, he claimed that the whole idea that his music meant anything was disagreeable to him, but once again we must see this as inadequate.

Take, for example, the third movement. It never stops talking, yet it says nothing: newspeak, doublespeak, nonespeak. Like a politician replying to a question, this music contrives at once to give the impression that the material of which it is made is being dealt with, engaged, whereas what is actually happening is that the material is being subjected to some kind of treatment, but one which leaves it essentially unchanged and the questioner so weary that the matter is no longer pursued.

Would we have heard the sea in Debussyís La Mer had he called the work simply Three Symphonic Sketches? I donít really think so, but neither do I think, in that particular case, that it would matter much. So does it matter that we donít know what, if anything, was in Vaughan Williamsí mind as he composed the finale of his Sixth Symphony? Perhaps he feared that if this silent, unpeopled landscape were explained the essentially enigmatic nature of the music would be lost and a large part of its effect with it. I would tend to agree. But that does not necessarily mean that the music does not mean or represent anything.

Searching for meaning in the three symphonies which span the Second World War, we may finally argue that the Fourth Symphony expresses the concerns felt by the composer, and those felt by any thinking person, at the increasing tension in the political situation in Europe from the early part of the 1930s onwards. And given the nature of the conflict, its close over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, universal hope turned to disquiet, the Cold War; given these things, the atmosphere of the Sixth Symphony should not surprise us either.

Nothing new there, then. And if we are to accept the composerís insistence that these were just pieces of music, perhaps allowing for my view that the state of his mind at this time, influenced as it must have been by the state of world events, was at the origin of the particular nature of these works, what are we to make of the Fifth Symphony, almost entirely composed during the war years, and first performed in 1943?

We know that the reaction of many was relief that the composer had apparently reverted to his original style. He seemed to be showing how things could be once, as Boult put it, "this madness" was over (UVW p254). And then there was the feeling that the seventy-one year-old composer had written his swan-song, that the symphony as a whole and its radiant close in particular amounted to a particularly eloquent valedictory gesture. How wrong they were!

The symphony opens quietly with low Cs and horn calls which do nothing to establish a sense of stability. Yet it is not a violent instability like opening of the Fourth, more a kind of stable instability, as the dissonance thus formed does not strive to resolve onto something else: we are happy to go along with it. In this I completely agree with Hugh Ottaway that this chord is emphatically not a dominant seventh in G major. I have always heard this movement to be more in D than anything else, and the composerís reported uncertainty between G and D mystifies me. The music is modal in character, yet the tonal centre is either D with a flattened seventh or sometimes C with a raised fourth, both representing the kind of modal writing found throughout Vaughan Williamsí music. The violins play a fragment of a tune, then the same slightly extended and which is used at moments of transition, sometimes crucially, throughout the work. There then follows a longer melody played by the violins in octaves, a harmonised reprise of the opening melodic fragment then a return to the longer melody, fleshed out and with canons, again played by the violins. When played at the marked dynamics under a conductor with great control this passage communicates enormous serenity. Frequently, however, conductors take this passage louder than the composerís intentions, which introduces a yearning quality into the music which is certainly very affecting, but is it what the composer wanted?

The whole of this passage is underscored by the note C either held in the bass or continually recurring there, maintaining a gentle tonal ambiguity irrespective of the keys through which pass the upper voices. This instability remains until the magical moment when, at another statement of the opening fragment, the mists clear as the music modulates to a straightforward E major, the same key, incidentally, to which Vaughan Williams was to turn some years later for a related reason for the big first movement melody of his Sixth Symphony.

This E major melody is also of crucial importance. As Kennedy points out (p281), with minor changes of rhythm and the suppression of a single passing note the first eleven notes of this passage are identical in melodic contour to the "Alleluia" in Vaughan Williamsí hymn tune Sine Nomine, "For all the saints who from their labours rest". The music rises to a climax and then subsides onto unison Es. At this point the music takes on a more rapid feel: the strings play a long series of quavers as accompaniment to a falling two-note phrase in the woodwind. This is later extended to three notes and then to a melodic phrase, also falling, which is reminiscent of the opening of the movement. The tension increases as the string quavers turn to semiquavers and the music again rises to a climax before slowing and subsiding to the return of the opening music, complete with pianissimo horn calls. The first phrase of the modal melody is repeated several times as a way of increasing tension until the second subject returns, now in B flat major and marked to be played "Tutta forza" and which leads to the real climax of the movement, marked by descending scale passages repeated in sequence. The coda is distant and mysterious, based on the horn calls, the first phrase of the modal theme and its development, first heard in the allegro section but now much slower. The music dies away to nothing, or rather to two held notes, a D in the violas, ostensibly the keynote of the movement and of the symphony, but with the omnipresent, destabilising C in the cellos too.

The Scherzo is in rapid three time, but the rhythm only settles down at the seventh bar, and this uncertainty contributes to the feeling that the movement begins in the same world as the previous one had ended. The music is made up of many short themes and fragments of themes, some muted and ethereal, others, later in the movement, more robust. A frequent presence is a scurrying accompaniment of quavers played by the strings and requiring considerable virtuosity. An important, short, slower melodic phrase first introduced by the horns is repeated many times, harmonised in the trombones and the higher winds. After a while the metre changes to two in a bar and the character of the music becomes much more assertive and even spiteful. But within a very short time this is being undermined, subtly at first, by a syncopated figure in the strings which eventually becomes transformed into a yearning cantabile passage in longer notes which Wilfred Mellers has called "a song of infinite longing" (p263). The opening music returns and the movement, still rapid, subsides nonetheless into silence.

Out of this silence grow the six, sublime chords which begin the slow movement, and over a repeat of five of them a solo cor anglais sings a sad little tune in the key of C whose fourth degree is sometimes sharpened, sometimes not, modal colours once again. There then follows the first of three passages of polyphony, first on the strings alone, whose diatonic harmony is pure Vaughan Williams. Rising and falling chords, organum-like, accompany woodwind arabesques, before the polyphonic passage returns, more richly orchestrated now and rising to an Alleluia at its climax. The organum returns, the woodwinds too, extended this time, and the music dances, briefly, for four bars (at Figure 5) where the organum appears at double speed. The music becomes more agitated, but calm is restored for a moment by the solo horn who borrows the cor anglaisí original melody. The agitated music returns, however, leading to alarums which are positively heraldic in splendour and menace. But the calm polyphony once more returns, this time rising to a passionate Alleluia climax which creates the atmosphere in which the movement will close. Two short violin solos, further, hushed Alleluias Ė which Whittall calls "dangerously saccharine" (Frogley p207) Ė and the music sinks into A major silence.

A major is the dominant of D major, and at last the finale opens unequivocally in this key. It is also the first time a movement has begun in a totally different mood from the end of the previous one. It is a passacaglia, a series of variations on a repeated theme, usually first heard in the bass. And so it is here, except that the passacaglia is not very strict and the theme is no more important than a counter-melody presented in the seventh bar by the first violins and flutes. This music is full of smiles and the sort of goodwill to be found in Haydn as well as in Vaughan Williams. Itís very moving, too: the Alleluia which has preoccupied the composer in the previous movement is back here as soon as the fourteenth bar.

The smiles turn to something like laughter Ė this music really is very jolly Ė before the metre changes to one in a bar festivities based on the counter melody. Twice more the same series of events takes place until held chords, trumpets and horns first, then trombones, herald a change in things. What happens next is a long, carefully worked-out passage to prepare us for the end of the symphony. The upper instruments develop the counter melody, the bass instruments the theme Ė their roles are thus reversed Ė with much rhythmic development, counterpoint and rising tension. When the high point has clearly been reached a fragment of the passacaglia theme is repeated several times to present the return, fortissimo, of the horn calls from the very opening of the symphony. As the tension calms after this moment of high drama the short melodic fragment with which the symphony also began is used for the last time to usher in the epilogue. This is music of quite extraordinary calm. In searching to describe it we might use words like tranquillity and benediction. From the beginning of the epilogue to the end of the work there is not a single accidental, which explains some things, but not the remarkable spirit the composer creates here. Based on the counter-melody and its Alleluia it gradually moves out in two directions, the basses finding their way eventually to the certainty of the lowest D, the upper strings climbing ever higher, overlapping each other in their successful search for a stratospheric A. Young players who resent having to practise their scales might pause and wonder at the last thing the first clarinet is given to play. Itís nothing more than a rising, two-octave scale of D major, supported by the second clarinet in the first octave, but how the player must look forward to that rising scale, a metaphor, like the stringsí music, a great church spire reaching towards heaven.

So simple seems the overall message of the Fifth Symphony that to ask questions as to its meaning seems impertinent. Yet we must not forget that this most radiant music first appeared at the height of the war. The composer used a fair bit of existing music for his symphony, drawing on several different sources. Most notable amongst them was his as yet unfinished opera based on Bunyanís The Pilgrimís Progress. Why he drew so extensively on this music is unclear. It may simply be that he didnít want such valuable material to remain locked in a project which he feared may never be completed. The music is often used quite differently in the symphony from in the opera, and any interpretation we might try to put on the symphony with relation to the opera should certainly be treated with caution. In any case, the links between the two represent a whole area of study and are beyond the scope of this paper. Let us just note two things. Firstly, the composer said that only in the slow movement was there any dramatic connection between the two works, and it was on the manuscript of the slow movement that he had inscribed "Upon this place stood a cross, and a little below a sepulchre. Then he said: "He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death."" Secondly, Bunyanís work, in essentially simple language, tells of a soul who sets out on a quest and, meeting numerous allegorical characters on the way, eventually achieves his goal. The Fifth Symphony may also be viewed in these terms.

In a fascinating paper in the RVW Society Journal (No. 17) Arnold Whittall challenged a number of assumptions about the work, and in particular the meaning Ė how else can one express the matter? Ė of the epilogue. He quite rightly says that the optimism and triumph of the finale is compromised by the thunderous return of the music from the symphonyí opening horn calls. This "crisis", as he puts it, "adds up to the fact that the ending could go either way." Vaughan Williams was later to do something similar at the end of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony as already cited, but in the other direction. The music there seems to be verging on optimism, albeit unrealistic, to be striving for something positive and hopeful to latch onto, when the door is slammed in its face, as it were, leaving only disillusion and despair.

Whittall writes "...I find the closing stages of the Fifthís first movement to be the most bleak and disturbing music the composer ever wrote." Weíve seen that this coda is made up of a single, slower restatement of a tune first heard in the development section, plus the opening horn calls and lower string held notes. It would seem that if we find the coda "bleak and disturbing" we should perhaps find the opening of the symphony likewise, since it made up of essentially the same music. Itís true, however, that the composer adds, in the coda, a single note, F, which changes everything. The music now hovers between the sort of ambiguous D tonal centre first heard at the outset, and the note F played in unison by the oboe and cor anglais, a particularly strange, hollow sound. Whether this adds up to "the most bleak and disturbing" music seems to depend on the how the conductor reads it. Most conductors find mystery here, though some encourage their players to a warmer tone and miss it completely. Its true, now, that if the conductor does not find this bleakness by soliciting a colder, emptier sound, I feel short-changed, as if an element of the symphony is missing, but whether it is present in the notes, whether it is right, is another matter. What I think essential is that the Scherzo should begin in the same world as the first movement ends.

Whittall supports his argument for a new reading of the epilogue by saying that the fact that the music allows for different interpretations is part of its stature. This seems to me a strange way of looking at the problem. A response I wrote to Whittallís article was published in the following issue of the Journal (No. 18). As I wrote there, "I find [the closing pages] amongst the most unequivocal in all music, as straightforward in their own way as the closing pages of Beethovenís Fifth." Are we to argue that the closing pages of Beethovenís Fifth can "go either way" (Whittall) and that that is a mark of the musicís stature. Or is that stature being called into question by those who argue that the end of Beethovenís Fifth is simply an expression of triumph with no ambiguity of any kind?

What are the feelings that the closing pages of Vaughan Williamsí Fifth provoke? Well, for this listener, relatively simple things: profound calm; contentment; peace of mind; optimism in spite of the past. I believe the public reacted in this sort of way after the first performance which took place, letís not forget, in the midst of war. No wonder, given the nature of the music, they saw it as a message of how things might be "once this madness is over".

A few general points now. This is a complex score, though less so than many. The composer gives relatively little guidance to his interpreters as to how it should go. Compared to an Elgar symphony, for example, or even others by the same composer, there is very little in the way of expression marks. Whole passages go by where the initial mezzo forte marking is modified by not so much as a "hairpin" crescendo.

As for the speed of the music, though meticulous, the indications are also sparing. The Preludio Ė each movement is given a title in Italian Ė is marked Moderato, crotchet = 80, with the central Allegro at minim = 75. No accelerando is marked in this passage, though almost all conductors make one. Most are likewise well below the marked tempo at the beginning of the movement. Rather more of them do as the composer asks in the Scherzo, originally marked Presto, dotted minim = 120, with the word misterioso added later, presumably part of the minor revisions of 1951 (Kennedy/Eulenberg), but they are hard put to avoid it becoming uncomfortably breathless. Not a single conductor on the list below launches the Romanza at the marked Lento, crotchet = 66, and many are close to half that speed. At each of the three appearances of the main theme the composer asks that the music should move on a little. A number of other tempo changes are indicated for the more agitated passages, but the indications in the score require the tempo of the main material to remain constant. The Passacaglia begins Moderato, crotchet = 120. Once again, rare is the recorded performance which begins at this speed, though several are not far short. Later indications suggest that the composer views this as definitely three in a bar, but at this tempo the music easily becomes more like one in a bar, and benefits accordingly in my view. It is clear, and bearing in mind that metronome marks are usually given for guidance only, that Vaughan Williams wanted his Fifth to be played faster than conductors want to play it. Even the recordings at which he was or may have been present are slower than his markings, yet he left them in place. He clearly wished that the music should keep moving, and even if conductors today find his marked tempi uncongenial, they should certainly wonder why they are so rapid, and adapt their interpretation accordingly. In listening to these performances I have come to the conclusion that the most successful are those which seek a simplicity of utterance, which avoid bombast, inflation, exaggeration; where the expression is kept within bounds, and crucially, where things happen Ė crescendos, decrescendos, accelerandos Ė at exactly the moment the composer marks them in the score. The more sparing the indications the more important it is to respect those which are there, and this applies also to questions of tempo.

A passage of particular interest in this respect is the one in the first movement which is marked "tutta forza" and leads some bars later to the movementís climax. Only the timpani are silent at this point, and a composerís marking of "tutta forza" speaks for itself. There is no indication that the music is to slow down, however; indeed, a crotchet = crotchet marking might be taken to indicate the opposite, though this is probably part of a different, though related, technical matter. Yet almost every conductor holds back, sometimes very much, occasionally to almost grotesque effect, and frequently to take up the original tempo four bars later. I would love to hear this passage as the composer seems to have wanted, and the following bars to move on impulsively to the climax of the movement, avoiding even very much in the way of ritenuto at the end of the passage. This is how I would do it if I were invited to conduct this symphony Ė concert promoters and record producers please note. Boult, in his second recording, comes nearest to the spirit of what I mean, and Menuhin too, at first, though he pulls back the tempo enormously into the coda.

The orchestra required is relatively modest: two flutes, one doubling piccolo, oboe and cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, timpani and strings. The basic sound is of the mass of strings, often, as in the first movement, doubled in the higher octaves by the flutes. Most of the really important material is heard first on the strings, and of course their radiance totally dominates the close of the work. The presence of the cor anglais gives a particular colour to the wind choir. The orchestral writing in the first movement Allegro owes something to Sibelius, to whom the symphony was dedicated, though the passage can sound equally like Tchaikovsky in some performances. Some of the trickier customers our Pilgrim meets on his journey can perhaps be heard in the Scherzo, where the orchestration in the spikier, staccato passages, is rather hard and biting. In the Romanza, the parallel, organum-like, dark chords heard in the lower wind and strings reflect perhaps the sepulchre in the deleted Bunyan superscription. And then a curiosity. At the high point of this movement the timpani are added to the texture to underline the drama. It would appear that in the mid-1980s it was discovered that an error had crept into the score, and that these few timpani notes should be played one bar sooner than marked. There is no doubt that this amendment makes musical sense, especially from the harmonic point of view, and all the conductors on record from Vernon Handley onwards have been convinced by the argument. Yet the first two recordings were made during the composerís lifetime, he was probably present at the first Boult recording, and he conducted the work several times himself. Is it really possible that he never noticed this error? And if he did, why has it taken so long to come to light? Iíd be grateful to any reader with anything to contribute on this curious story.

Iíd like to end my discussion of this wonderful piece by dealing for a moment with the question of the Alleluias. We have seen that the second subject of the Preludio is an almost note for note transcription of the Alleluia of Sine Nomine. The symphony ends, indeed its final cadence is composed of, similar references. But itís a different Alleluia that I hear more, both here and elsewhere in the composerís output. The hymn tune Easter Alleluya (Lasst uns erfreuen) from the Cölner Gesangbuch of 1623 and sung to several hymns, "All creatures of our God and King", for example, was included in the 1931 edition of Songs of Praise as number 157. Vaughan Williams characteristically brushed aside suggestions that he had quoted this tune, but I find the argument for it very persuasive. We should also bear in mind that it was used by Holst in 1920 as the basis of his setting of Psalm 148. The Alleluias are simple downward scales first from tonic to dominant, then from subdominant to tonic, which corresponds exactly with Vaughan Williams use of the Alleluia motif in the Fifth Symphony but also in Flos Campi, as well as the most touching use made of it in Hugh the Drover (Kennedy, 1964, p.183).

 

PART 2

SOURCES

Achenbach, Andrew, 2000, Vaughan Williamsís Fifth, The Gramophone, June 2000

Barber, Robin, 1998, Record Review, RVW Society Journal, No. 13

Frogley, Alan (ed.), 1996, Vaughan Williams Studies, Cambridge

Hedley, William, 2000, On Reading Arnold Whittallís Article on the Fifth Symphony, RVW Society Journal, No. 18

Kennedy, Michael, 1964, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Clarendon, 1992

Kennedy, Michael, 1982, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony in D major, (preface to Eulenberg miniature score), Eulenberg.

Whittall, Arnold, 2000, The Fifth Symphony, a study of genesis and genre, RVW Society Journal, No. 17

Mellers, Wilfrid, 1989, Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion, Albion, 1997

Ottaway, Hugh, 1972, Vaughan Williams Symphonies, BBC

Vaughan Williams, Ralph, 1934, National Music and other essays, Clarendon 1996

Vaughan Williams, Ursula, 1964, RVW, a Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford, 1988

This paper first appeared in the Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society

 


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