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ClassicsOnline Home » VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No.5 in D major
Symphony No.9 in E minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney in 1872, the son of a clergyman, His ancestry on both his father' s and mother's side was of some intellectual distinction. His father was descended from a family eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and his grandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved to live with his mother' s father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child Vaughan Williams learned the piano and the violin and received a conventional upper middle class education at Charterhouse, after which he delayed entry to Cambridge, preferring instead to study at The Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt, later Master of The Queen's Musick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he took up his place at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History, but took composition lessons from Charles Wood. After graduation in both History and Music, he returned to The Royal College, where he studied composition with Stanford, and, perhaps more significant, became a friend of a fellow-student, Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove of great importance in frank exchanges of views on one another' s compositions in the years that followed.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took The opportunity to visit Berlin, where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. In England he turned his attention to the collection of folk-music in various regions of the country , an interest that materially influenced The shape of his musical language. In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly in orchestration, from Ravel, and had by now begun to make a reputation for himself as a composer, not least with the first performance in 1910 of his first symphony, A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whittnan, and his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The even tenor of his life was interrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private. 1914 was also the year of the London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work for violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending. Three years later, after service in Salonica that seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to France. There he was also able to make some use of his abilities as a musician.
After the war Vaughan Williams returned to the Royal College of Music, now as a professor of composition, a position he retained until 1938. In these years he came to occupy a commanding position in the musical life of the country, with a series of compositions that seemed essentially English, the apparent successor of Elgar, although his musical language was markedly different. The war of 1939 brought the challenge of composition for the cinema, with notable scores for The 49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 in his music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the basis of the seventh of his symphonies. Other works of the last decade of his life included two more symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, a violin sonata and concertos for harmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventures for an octogenarian.
The first performance of the fifth of the symphonies, Symphony No.5 in D major, took place at a Promenade Concert in London at the Royal Albert Hall on 24 June 1943, under the direction of the composer. Vaughan Williams had started work on the new symphony in 1938, the year of his Serenade to Music, and continued over the following years, among the inevitable distractions of wartime and commissioned film-scores. For some time he had been working intermittently on an opera based on John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress. The conditions of war-time made further work on any such project unrealistic and it was not until an invitation of 1951 for the Festival of Britain that the opera, or Morality, as he called it, was completed and staged at Covent Garden. Nevertheless there was material from the opera that could be used, providing elements of the first, third and last movements, to be treated symphonically.
The new symphony was scored for an orchestra of normal dimensions, with double woodwind, the second flute alternating with piccolo, cor anglais, pairs of horns, trumpets and tenor trombones, bass trombone, timpani and strings. Considering the period of its composition and the relative stridency of elements of the Fourth Symphony, it is noticeable that an aura of tranquillity predominates in much of the Fifth Symphony. The work was dedicated, 'Without permission and with the sincerest flattery to Jean Sibelius, whose great example is worthy of imitation, a tribute which, at the time, might have seemed unfashionable. The first movement Preludio opens with some harmonic ambiguity, the evocative French horn motif underpinned by a sustained C, a flattened seventh of the tonic key, in the lower strings. A lyrical melody, suggesting a pentatonic or modal outline with concomitant pastoral implications, is heard, bringing shifts of tonality reaching a shaft of gentle sunlight in E major, marked Tranquillo, a theme to be used in the later opera. The Allegro development section, at first in E flat, ends in the return of the French horns' motif, seeming again to pierce the mist, as the music moves forward to a dynamic climax with the second subject, which now clearly invites identification with the Alleluia from the composer's hymn-setting For all the saints who from their labours rest, the melody Sine nomine. Calm descends again and the movement ends with the French horns' motif, finally muted. In the Scherzo muted strings introduce pentatonic figuration, before wind instruments add fragments of melody of another kind, as one thematic element follows another, bringing an interruption from the oboe and a jaunty passage that might even suggest for a moment the difficulties encountered by the sorcerer' s apprentice. A sudden change of rhythm leads, in the end, to the return of the mood, texture and thematic material of the opening. The principal theme of the Romanza, heard from the cor anglais over gentle string chords, is used in the later opera, where it has the words, from Bunyan, 'He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death'. Cor anglais and oboe solos intermingle, as one echoes the other and other woodwind instruments join them. A dynamic climax is followed by the re- appearance of elements of the principal theme from the French horn, followed by the trumpet, and there is music of greater intensity, before a hush descends, allowing a solo violin its rhapsodic comment, followed by a muted French horn, before divided strings bring the movement to a serene conclusion. The last movement, a Passacaglia, allows the cellos to introduce the ground on which the following sections are to be built, although the form is treated with some freedom. The first violin introduces a hymn-like countermelody and the music moves on to livelier syncopation and more varied material, often seemingly allusive in its references. A chord, reinforced by the brass, brings the ground, against tremolo strings, to the clarinet and the flute, but before long the music has moved forward to its inevitable goal, the contemplative mood suggested by the Preludio, introduced first by a triumphant horn-call, transformed from its earlier less assertive appearance, with its opening violin theme now demonstrating association with the passacaglia countermelody, on which the gently meditative coda is based.
Vaughan Williams's first wife, Adeline, had died in 1951, at the age of eighty. In 1953, shortly after the successful launching of the Sinfonia Antartica in Manchester and in London, he married his second wife, Ursula Wood, the widow of a Royal Artillery officer, who had already provided texts for him and was later to be his biographer. The following year brought the first performance of his Tuba Concerto and a series of lectures in Canada and the United States at leading universities. By early 1955 he had completed his Eighth Symphony, a work he dedicated to Barbirolli, who conducted the first performance with the Halle Orchestra in Manchester on 2nd May 1956. In the same year Vaughan Williams started work on his final symphony.
The Symphony No.9 in E minor was dedicated to the Royal Philharmonic Society and first performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent in London on 2 April 1958. Vaughan Williams still led an astonishingly active life. With his wife, he took a holiday in Ischia with Susana and William Walton, returning to work on a new opera, receive an honorary doctorate from Nottingham University and attend the Cheltenham Festival, while continuing active social and musical activities. His earlier opera Sir John in Love was staged at Sadler's Wells at the end of July and on 5th August he heard again the Ninth Symphony at a Promenade Concert, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent. The work, now receiving a generally more favourable critical reception than had at first been the case, was to be recorded towards the end of August by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult. On 26 August, the day of the recording, Vaughan Williams suffered a heart attack and died. The death of one who had long seemed a permanent feature of English music was widely mourned and his ashes were later laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
The last symphony is innovative in its scoring. Double woodwind is augmented by a piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and double bassoon, with three saxophones, while a brass section of four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba also finds a place for a B flat flügelhorn. There is a large percussion section that includes glockenspiel, xylophone, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, a very large gong, tam-tam, deep bells, celesta and timpani, with two harps and the necessary string section. It has been pointed out by Michael Kennedy and in some detail by Alain Frogley that the symphony had its genesis in part in an evocation of Salisbury, of the Plain and Stonehenge and of Thomas Hardy's Wessex and his novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles. As in certain other Vaughan Williams symphonies, no traces of this original programme were retained, but from the surviving sketches Alain Frogley has identified a close parallel in the second movement with the final scenes of Hardy's novel, as Tess and her husband Angel Clare approach Stonehenge, a true Temple of the Winds, by night, resting there, but, as dawn breaks, interrupted by the arrival of the police and the arrest of Tess for the murder of her seducer (qv. Music and Letters, LXVIII, No.1). Her death at the hands of the hangman is suggested, as the movement draws to a close.
The first movement opens against a sustained tonic, as a sombre melody rises in the lower register of brass and woodwind. Harp chords accompany gentler thematic material in G minor, introduced by the clarinets, and this returns in fuller form, to be heard again in recapitulation, when it is entrusted to a solo violin, before the movement ends as it had begun. The flügelhorn, the timbre of which had added a darker colouring to the first movement, presents the opening theme of the Andante sostenuto, which Alain Frogley suggests as evoking the sound of the wind, as it blows through the lonely monument where Tess and Angel Clare rest. A second 'barbaric march' theme intrudes, alternating with the first theme and then further developed. It is the first theme that precedes a fourth thematic element, identified in the composer's sketches with Tess herself, while further passages suggest a mood of overhanging fate, the inescapable doom that has overshadowed Tess's life and now leads to her death, as the bell tolls for her. The mood changes at once with the Scherzo, its jaunty and ironic first theme presented by one of the saxophones, instruments that come into their own in later sections of the movement, not least in a passage with the direction quasi choral, then taken up by the strings. The saxophones bring the Scherzo to an end, followed only by the insistent rhythm of the side drum. The complex final movement starts with a singing melody for the first violins, with imitative entries following from the violas, second violins and first clarinet in turn. A section marked Poco animato follows, with a melody proposed by a French horn and echoed by the flüge1horn, bringing a characteristic falling interval that is to return. An Andante sostenuto brings back a derivative of the opening cantilena, introduced by the bass clarinet and lower strings, and a more direct version of the theme from the oboe, accompanied by the harps. There is continued contrast in what follows, with one thematic element derived from another in alternating episodes. A second section of the movement starts with a viola melody, imitated by the violins and further developed. The music reaches its grandiose climax in the final Largamente, leading to a confident E major chord, dying away into the distance.
This digital recording was made and edited using 20-bit technology. It was subsequently dithered down to 16-bit using the Apogee UV22 algorithm. which retains the benefits of 20-bit resolution. 20-bit recordings are sonically superior to those in 16-bit due to the increase in the signal-to-noise ratio which is inherent in a higher bit-rate recording. This enhanced quality is evident to the listener with an increase in dynamic range capability and a recorded sound which captures more detail within the musical texture.
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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9