Like Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler before him, Vaughan Williams composed nine symphonies. But, unlike Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler each and every one of his nine is totally unlike any other. Think of the contrast between A Sea Symphony (no. 1), the Pastoral (no. 3) and his eighth for example. Are these by the same composer? Well, yes and this is the wonderful enigma (is that the right word?) that – for me, at least, deepens my respect for RVW’s creative mind every time I listen.
Now, I can’t possibly cover all nine works in one short post, so I have chosen these three to write a little about. Not necessarily chosen at random, but rather highlighting ones which I feel display the many facets of RVW’s composing persona. So, let’s start at the beginning with his first, A Sea Symphony. A perennial favourite setting Walt Whitman’s text so splendidly and letting us feel the wind in our hair and the spray on our faces – a real celebration of elemental power! You can’t miss that opening wake-up call “Behold the sea itself”. Right from the word go RVW breaks new ground as it is the first fully choral symphony ever composed (as far as I know…). The work was written over the course of the six years between 1903 and 1909 setting text from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and was first performed at the 1910 Leeds Festival with RVW himself on the podium. It is also the longest of his nine symphonies, and, in a complete non sequitur, it’s also important to remember that RVW didn’t number his symphonies – in fact he was rather against the idea – that came later. There’s no mistaking the legacy of those great choral composers Parry and Stanford in the work, but also that of Ravel with whom RVW had been studying during the winter of 1907-08 (and as an aside, Ravel, having heard works by RVW remarked that he was “the only one of my students who does not write my music” and RVW himself said that he had learned from Ravel “how to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines”). The work hits you in the face (or should that be in the ears) from the outset with that glorious wall of sound from the chorus and full orchestra and carries on from there in outright celebration, deploying the forces of that (very) full orchestra which includes an organ, two harps, E flat clarinet, double bassoon and the full complement of percussion. If you would like to know more, do read Michael Kennedy’s excellent note for the Hyperion recording by the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder.
And listen to A Sea Symphony on YouTube
Phew…where to now? Well in complete contrast I’m taking you to the third of RVW’s symphonies – the “Pastoral”. And you can stop thinking about Beethovenesque depictions of gentle walks in the countryside, birdcalls and peasants having a jolly time once the thunderstorm has passed. This is about as far as one can get from that rustic characterisation. In fact, it’s a reflection on the ghastliness of the First World War in which RVW served as an ambulance driver – a depiction of the countryside in France after battle. Indeed, RVW himself described its inspiration to Ursula Wood (who would later become his wife) ‘It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted … 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.’ And to quote Michael Kennedy’s note for the Hyperion recording by the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder “the Pastoral label is explained: not the Cotswolds, but battle-scarred France, a peaceful landscape defiled by man-made war. Ironic, perhaps. It is characteristic of Vaughan Williams that what might be called his ‘war requiem’ is not full of trumpets and drums, nor of angry harmonic dissonances, but looks above the battle to the transcendence of sunsets and Corot.” The work was first performed on 26 January 1922 at the Queen’s Hall conducted by Adrian Boult.
And here is Vernon Handley’s Pastoral Symphony performance also on YouTube.
And for my final choice, in this whistle-stop (or should that be trumpet fanfare) tour, I have selected what, for me, is perhaps the most extraordinary of RVW’s nine symphonies: his symphony in D, or no. 8 as we now know it. Composed during the years 1953-55, RVW by now in his mid-eighties (and just pause to think of that as you listen to the masterly creativity of the work and bear in mind there was yet more to come). It’s almost RVW’s version of A Young Person’s guide to the Orchestra. The first movement is for full orchestra, but the second and third feature respectively wind and then strings alone. The finale, a toccata, is for full orchestra with the entire kitchen sink gathered in the percussion section, or “all the phones and spiels known to the composer” as RVW put it in his programme note for the work. It takes five percussionists (and I’m sure a considerable amount of choreography) working full-tilt to deploy the vast array he calls for: three tuned gongs, a vibraphone (he’d not long discovered the instrument and was fascinated by it), xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, tubular bells (on which the lucky player gets to perform glissandi) and the “usual” array of other percussion instruments. What a glorious, joyous, exuberant celebration it is too. The work is dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli who with his Hallé Orchestra gave the first performance. What an occasion that must have been! Now, dear reader, this is where I shamefacedly confess that until a few weeks ago, I had never (to my knowledge) heard this particular symphony. I know, shocking isn’t it? When I did, it knocked me sideways and had me marvelling all over again at RVW’s creative mind and his total mastery of the orchestra as an instrument in and of itself. Ravel, eat your heart out! (Actually, he would have been tickled pink, I think, with this work from the pen of his former pupil).
In conclusion, I can do no better than quote Simona Pakenham whose Ralph Vaughan Williams: a discovery of his music published in 1957 [M501.c.95.35] (and therefore not long after the eighth’s first performance) is a delightful and deeply perceptive work. She writes:
“Perversely… it is the unnamed symphonies that seem to carry the most urgent weight of meaning, although, certainly, they cannot be explained ‘in terms of earthly fact’. It was the F minor Symphony, followed by the serene D major, that earned Vaughan Williams his reputation as a prophet; the one, said the critics, foreshadowing war; the other, first performed in war, prophesying peace. In these unnamed symphonies the weight of thought, philosophy and contemplation is overwhelming. Only Beethoven writes music with this moral force – Beethoven whose style repels Vaughan Williams, whose mind fascinates him, and with whose symphonies his own have sometimes been compared. It is as much the message that each symphony carries as the different style in which each is written that makes it impossible, after even a brief acquaintance, to confuse a movement of any one of them with a movement of any other, for the style and the message are one.”
How fortunate we are to have these masterpieces to carry with us – do let us know which would be your desert island choice.