Ralph Vaughan Williams is a fascinating composer—one of those brilliant musical voices I wish was heard more often. Well, heard more often on this side of the Atlantic. In his native Britain, he holds a much more prominent place in the musical firmament and in the public’s affections; his lyrical Lark Ascending routinely tops the charts of Britain’s favorite piece of classical music.
“Lyrical” seems to be the quality most people associate with this quintessentially English composer. The word perfectly encapsulates the musical language of the Lark Ascending, and also describes such works as his early symphonies, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the Oboe Concerto, and one of my absolute favorite works of music, the Serenade to Music.
This is not, however, the musical language of his Fourth Symphony.
While previous works were beguiling, the Fourth is aggressive. Earlier works were often painted in pastels, but the Fourth is a work of primary colors. It is craggy with dissonance and sharp angles. And for those who love Vaughan Williams’s romanticism, this powerful work comes as a bit of a shock.
That said, it is a masterpiece of the highest order—a work that shows Vaughan Williams’ versatility as a composer, as well as his ability to create drama and musical tension.
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By the 1930s, many writers, performers, and fellow composers had grown impatient with Vaughan Williams’ pastoral romanticism, writing the composer off as a one-trick pony. In 1931, no less an authority than Aaron Copland wrote:
It is fairly safe to predict that Vaughan Williams will be the kind of local composer who stands for something great in the musical development of his own country, but whose actual musical contribution cannot bear exportation…. His is the music of the gentleman-farmer, noble in inspiration but dull.
After hearing Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony, however, Copland changed his tune: “Subsequent works, especially the composer’s Fourth Symphony, give the lie to this statement.”
Copland is hardly alone in this assessment that the Fourth was an undeniable masterpiece. After hearing it in rehearsals, composer Sir William Walton remarked that it was “the greatest symphony since Beethoven.” A whole series of conductors who were not drawn to British music generally, or Vaughan Williams’s music specifically, quickly championed this new work in both the concert hall and the recording studio.
Because the work is so pointed in its material and so unique in its musical language, many listeners assume that it has to be about something. Many have assumed it was written in response to Vaughan Williams’s personal experiences in the trenches of World War I, or The Blitz raining down on London during World War II. This is not the case—those violent experiences paradoxically gave birth to the serene Third and Fifth Symphonies, respectively. Others have suggested Vaughan Williams was channeling the rise of fascism, or warmongering generally.
Vaughan Williams emphatically denied any extra-musical association: “I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external—e.g. the state of Europe—but simply because it occurred to me like this…It is what I wanted to do at the time.”
Perhaps the best answer to what the symphony is “about” is the simplest one. His wife Ursula once remarked that it is a kind of self-portrait: “no one seems to have observed how … closely it is related to the character of the man who wrote it. The towering furies of which he was capable, his fire, pride and strength are all revealed and so are his imagination and lyricism.”
Regardless of any larger meaning it may or may not have, the Fourth is simply brilliant.
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The first movement begins with a roar, taking as a point of inspiration the grinding dissonances in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In the first few bars Vaughan Williams lays out all the basic musical material of the symphony, but more importantly establishes its essential feeling: it is troubled, fearful. As the initial blast subsides, a violin section continues the feeling of unspoken fears. Again, the brass snarls out in a dramatic theme that marches forward to another booming cry. The movement continues in this vein—a turbulent clashing-together of musical ideas that are trying to arrange themselves into some sort of order. Only at the end of the movement is this order finally achieved, with a quiet coda where the storm clouds finally pull back to reveal hazy, humid sunlight.
The second movement’s tempo is slower and less brusque, but the underlying tension remains. The blaring fanfare theme of the first movement appears again, but it is quieter… more contemplative. What follows is a section that feels oddly baroque, but is overlaid with a restlessness that come straight from the 20th century. A walking bass line keeps the momentum going while the upper strings begin a haunting aria. The bassoon chimes in, and suddenly the aria spins into a new direction. Overall, the movement is a study in taught tension, broken by unexpected outbursts. It’s as if the music is trying to contain the fearful energies unleashed in the first movement, but is unable to hold them back.
And when the energies fully burst forth, they do so in dramatic style. The third movement is a turbulent tour de force. The opening material from the first movement returns again with a vengeance, providing the rhythmic charge that propels the music forward. The tempo gyrates faster and faster, launching the movement directly…
…into three crashing chords that announce the fourth movement. What follows is a wild ride of emotions, and the most musically complex section of the symphony. A snarling parody of a military march blares out, but quickly runs out of steam and dissipates. There is a quick return to the first movement coda, a quiet moment in the midst of the storm. But this repose is short-lived, and Vaughan Williams begins a hugely sophisticated restatement of the various themes of the symphony, compressing them and playing them off each other to ratchet up the tension even further—tension in desperate search for release. Finally, music gives way to thunderous climax as the symphony returns to its opening statement, and ends with a bang.
Whether this is a hard-won victory, or a collapse into defeat, is left to the mind of the listener.
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This brilliant masterpiece, one that earned the enthusiastic support of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and many other musical luminaries, will receive a thrill-ride of a performance with Andrew Litton and the Minnesota Orchestra this week at Orchestra Hall. The concert also includes Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Suite from The Snow Maiden. Few tickets remain… grab them while you can at the Minnesota Orchestra’s online box office.