VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphonies Nos. 3, 'Pastoral', and 6
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958)
Symphony No.3 (Pastoral Symphony)
Symphony No.6 in E Minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire villageof Down Ampney in 1872, the son of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father's andmother's side was of some intellectual distinction. His father was descended from a familyeminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and his grandmother aDarwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved to live with his mother'sfather at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child Vaughan Williams learned the piano andthe violin and received a conventional upper middle class education at Charterhouse, afterwhich he delayed entry to Cambridge, preferring instead to study at the Royal College ofMusic, where his teachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parrat, later Master of theQueen'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. Aftergraduation in both Music and History, he returned to the Royal College, where he studiedcomposition with Stanford, and, perhaps more important, became a friend of afellow-student Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove of great importance infrank exchanges of views on one another's compositions in the years following.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took the opportunity tovisit Berlin, where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. InEngland he turned his attention to the collection of folk-music in various regions of thecountry, an interest that materially influenced the shape of his musical language. In 1908he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly in orchestration, from Ravel, and had bynow begun to make a reputation for himself as a composer, not least with the firstperformance in 1910 of his first symphony, A SeaSymphony, setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The eventenor of his life was interrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal ArmyMedical Corps. 1914 was also the year of A LondonSymphony and of his rhapsodic work for violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending. Three years later, after servicein Salonica that seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in the Royal GarrisonArtillery and was posted to France, where he was also able to make some use of hisabilities as a musician.
After the war Vaughan Williams returned to the Royal College ofMusic, now as a professor of composition, a position he retained until 1938. In theseyears he came to occupy a commanding position in the musical life of the country, with aseries of compositions that seemed essentially English, the apparent successor of Elgar,although his musical language was markedly different. The second war brought the challengeof composition for the cinema, with notable scores for The49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 in musicfor the film Scott of the Antarctic, thebasis of his later Sinfonia Antartica, the seventh of his nine symphonies. Other works ofthe last decade of his life included two more symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, a violin sonata and concertosfor harmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventures for an octogenarian. He died in August1958, four months after the first performance of his last symphony.
Vaughan Williams wrote his ThirdSymphony, the aptly named Pastoral Symphony,in 1922, and revised the work in 1955. Conceived first in the countryside of NorthernFrance towards the end of the war, the symphony has a certain sameness of mood throughout,an air of tranquillity that may be perceived in part as a celebration of the return ofpeace, described in the composer's own programme note on the first performance as"almost entirely quiet and contemplative". One hostile critic, however,satirised the work as "a cow looking over a gate", a verdict that does littlejustice to the subtlety and bold originality of conception of the music. The scoreincludes a last movement vocalise for soprano or tenor, although the alternative use of aclarinet is happily suggested. Other variants are permitted, although the full score callsfor three flutes, one doubling piccolo, two oboes, cor anglais, three clarinets, the thirddoubling bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets and trombones, tuba, apercussion section of timpani, triangle, bass drum, cymbals and celesta, harp and strings.
In addition to these instruments there are parts in the second movement for naturaltrumpet in E fiat and for natural horn.
The symphony breaks with tradition at once in its firstmovement, which unfolds in a generally meditative mood. A modal accompanimental figurefrom flutes, joined by clarinets, serves to introduce a theme heard first from cellos anddouble basses, with the harp. Thereafter thematic elements follow one another in materialsubtly related, making use of solo instruments and the telling effects of divided stringparts, with violins, violas and cellos divided at times into four. The movement ends witha solo cor anglais over divided string chords and a final brief and muted reference to thefirst theme from cellos and basses. The first theme of the second movement is announced bya solo French horn over a sustained string chord, the theme then handed, over changedharmonies, to oboe and clarinet and then to solo viola and flute. The movement containstwo cadenzas, the first for a natural trumpet and the second for natural horn, both withthe characteristic intonation of the true harmonic series. The third movement, markedModerato pesante, is a primordial dance, with its own rhythmic peculiarities, with which asecond theme of folk contour, stated by the trumpet, offers a contrast. The movement endswith a curious coda, a Presto introduced imitatively by reduced numbers of strings withthematic material that again proclaims its national origin. The last movement is shaped bythe opening solo, for voice or for clarinet, accompanied only by a soft roll of the drum.
The modal thematic material that unfolds leads to the final re-appearance of the rhapsodicsolo, now accompanied only by sustained notes from the muted violins at a height to whichthey have ascended in the bars immediately preceding, an inversion of the accompaniment ofthe opening of the movement.
The Sixth Symphony ofVaughan Williams was written after the second World War. It was completed in 1946, whenMichael Mullinar, to whom it was finally dedicated, played it through on the piano to thecomposer and a small group of friends. After revisions it was played through by the BBCSymphony Orchestra in December 1947 and first performed in public early in the followingyear. Some critics chose to describe the symphony as a War Symphony, its last movementseen by them as a prophecy of desolation. Vaughan Williams rejected this interpretationbut went so far as to quote Prospero's farewell to his art in Shakespeare's The Tempest, "We are such stuff as dreams aremade on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep", with reference to the lastmovement. This was by no means his own farewell to music, whatever mood may have come uponhim as he grew older.
The symphony is scored for a large orchestra that includes atenor saxophone, a xylophone and two harps, the second an optional doubling, in additionto a large woodwind and brass section, full percussion and strings. The first movement isin broadly traditional tripartite form. The first thematic material is developed in atransition that leads to the sec