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I was about to write that the Vaughan Williams
symphonies are now securely part of the concert repertoire. That
would have been wrong. In fact the symphonies remain comparative
rarities (except perhaps the Sea Symphony - a favourite
of choral societies); not, it is true, as rare as the Bax symphonies
but certainly not all that common.
Where Vaughan Williams' 'Nine' are securely established
is in the record catalogue with cycles of the nine by Thomson
(Chandos), Previn (RCA-BMG), Boult (1950s Decca; 1960s-70s EMI),
Bakels (part Naxos); Slatkin (BMG); Davis (Teldec), Haitink (EMI),
Handley (EMI). Hickox's original versions series is emerging with
tortoise-like progress from Chandos (numbers 6 and 8 just issued,
This book is laid out with one chapter per symphony,
an Introduction, a prelude and epilogue and a 4 page Bibliography.
Each symphony chapter is divided into sections one section for
The target audience for this book is one that
is musically literate in a technical sense or perhaps for people
studying towards musical literacy. The general enthusiast without
the ability to read and analyse music will soon be swamped in
references to transpositions, Mixolydian and Lydian modes, the
Phrygian diatessaron, hemiola, sudominants, chord types and tonal
structure. Of course as an out-and-out lay enthusiast of RVW you
may be prepared to weather these technical doldrums for the more
approachable material Dr Pike has to pass on. I hope so. I am
sure that enthusiasts without technical knowledge have much to
learn if they are prepared to stagger studiously through these
pages with full score and recordings to hand. You will already
have guessed that while I can just about follow a full score the
writer has no knowledge of musical analysis or of structure. The
book's academic legitimacy is proclaimed through careful footnoting.
The introduction makes some probing remarks.
Pike banishes the image of RVW as a countryman. He would never
have left London but for Adeline's protracted illness and he returned
in 1953 after her death. His 'field days' with Holst were aborted
when Holst died in 1934 and their place was taken by an inner
sanctum of friends: Howells. Bliss and Finzi. While he was late
in starting them (he was 42 when he finsihed a Sea Symphony)
they then remained a cyclic obsession until death intervened with
a completed Ninth in 1958. The Sea Symphony is fairly enough
described as uneven and exploratory. Its success is embedded in
its choral and solo requirements making it a natural mark for
choral societies. For listeners it has it longueurs although the
use of Whitman's text is one of its strengths. Dr Pike comments
on the London Symphony beinbg an enormous advance technically
on the previous one. Dr Pike does not mention the original version
now recorded by Chandos with Hickox.
The Pastoral is very unusual because of
its predominance of slow music. Howells wrote of the composer's
courage in writing such a work. Frank Howes (not exactly an uncritical
enthusiast of the British musical renaissance) recalled the best
performance he had ever heard being one conducted by George Dyson
in Hereford Cathedral. The acerbic Fourth was the first symphony
written without Holst's frank counsel. Instead Bax (the dedicatee),
R.O. Morris and Boult served as 'critical friends'. Why Dr Pike
lists Bax's Third Symphony as an example of similarly violent
works I do not know. I would agree that Rubbra's First is in that
category but the Bax Third is a tapestry of gaudy colours and
subtle emotional and illustrative poetry and even in its few demonstrative
climactic moments the issue is colour rather than violent conflict.
The linkage between Sibelius, the Fifth Symphony and Pilgrim's
Progress is duly made. It is Sibelius's Sixth that seems the closest
relative among the Finnish seven.
The Sixth is treated in the usual great detail.
I noted a comparison between the desolation of Holst's Egdon
Heath and the epilogue of the Sixth. He comments that of the
the middle symphonies they are prophetic of war (4), peace (5)
and the dangers of atomic weapons (6). He goes on to say that
if the Fifth is about a journey to the Celestical City, No 6 is
a journey into a bitter despairing void. Pike brackets the Eighth
with Beethoven's Eighth, Prokofiev’s Classical, Schulhoff’s Second,
Shostakovich’s Ninth and Havergal Brian's Ninth (Pike was and
may yet still be an office-bearer with the Havergal Brian Society).
We are reminded that the only major work between the 8th and 9th
is the motet A Vision of Aeroplanes. The Ninth represents
a return to the serious intention. It was written in Majorca and
at Joy Finzi's home in Newbury between 1956 and 1957. The preoccupations
and inspirations it reflects include Hardy's Wessex and specifically
Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the British cathedrals and the
Solent (itself the subject of an early RVW tone poem - now how
about a recording of that). In the two page epilogue Pike
makes the point that every one of the symphonies contrasts with
its predecessor and that RVW took to heart Whitman's exhortation
to 'steer for the deep waters only'. The book examines the structure
of each symphony relating the works to the European models of
symphonic and sonata form.
Martin Anderson's Toccata Press is very much
a one man band. Progress of its books towards publication is at
a snail 's pace but when they do appear they are invariably of
rewarding content and superb finish. I look forward with no patience
at all to Michael Crump's book on the Martinu symphonies and Colin
Scott-Sutherland's major study of the life and works of Ronald
Stevenson. Let's hope that they are not as long in the mill as
Diana McVeagh's Finzi biography for OUP (and will that EVER see
the light of common day?).
This book's emphasis is on the technical side
which is all to the good as a corrective given the opprobrium
pitched at Vaughan Williams over his alleged clumsiness, technical
ineptitude and amateurism.
I did not detect any typos apart from one in
the bibliography on p. 339 where correspondance appears
rather than the correct correspondence.
This is the second in the Symphonic Studies series.
if you were wondering, the first was Brian Newbould's 'Schubert
and the Symphony'. No.3 will be Michael Crump's book on the Martinu
This is an extremely well presented and intricate
dissection and commentary on Vaughan Williams' nine symphonies.