VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9 (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Kees Bakels) (Naxos: 8.550738)
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No.5 in D major
Symphony No.9 in E minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in theGloucestershire village of Down Ampney in 1872, the son of a clergyman, His ancestry onboth his father' s and mother's side was of some intellectual distinction. His father wasdescended from a family eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwoodand his grandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved to livewith his mother' s father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child Vaughan Williamslearned the piano and the violin and received a conventional upper middle class educationat Charterhouse, after which he delayed entry to Cambridge, preferring instead to study atThe 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 placeat Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History, but took composition lessons fromCharles Wood. After graduation in both History and Music, he returned to The RoyalCollege, where he studied composition with Stanford, and, perhaps more significant, becamea friend of a fellow-student, Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove ofgreat importance in frank exchanges of views on one another' s compositions in the yearsthat followed.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married andtook The opportunity to visit Berlin, where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened hismusical experience. In England he turned his attention to the collection of folk-music invarious regions of the country , an interest that materially influenced The shape of hismusical 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 leastwith the first performance in 1910 of his first symphony, >A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whittnan, andhis Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The even tenor of his life wasinterrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corps as aprivate. 1914 was also the year of the London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work forviolin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending. Three years later, after service in Salonicathat seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery andwas posted to France. There he was also able to make some use of his abilities as amusician.
After the war Vaughan Williamsreturned to the Royal College of Music, now as a professor of composition, a position heretained until 1938. In these years he came to occupy a commanding position in the musicallife of the country, with a series of compositions that seemed essentially English, theapparent successor of Elgar, although his musical language was markedly different. The warof 1939 brought the challenge of composition for the cinema, with notable scores for The49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 in his music forthe film Scott of the Antarctic, the basisof the seventh of his symphonies. Other works of the last decade of his life included twomore symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, a violin sonata and concertos forharmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventures for an octogenarian.
The first performance of the fifth ofthe symphonies, Symphony No.5 in D major,took place at a Promenade Concert in London at the Royal Albert Hall on 24th June 1943,under the direction of the composer. Vaughan Williams had started work on the new symphonyin 1938, the year of his Serenade to Music, and continued over the following years, amongthe inevitable distractions of wartime and commissioned film-scores. For some time he hadbeen working intermittently on an opera based on John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress. The conditions of war-timemade further work on any such project unrealistic and it was not until an invitation of1951 for the Festival of Britain that the opera, or Morality, as he called it, wascompleted and staged at Covent Garden. Nevertheless there was material from the opera thatcould be used, providing elements of the first, third and last movements, to be treatedsymphonically.
The new symphony was scored for anorchestra of normal dimensions, with double woodwind, the second flute alternating withpiccolo, cor anglais, pairs of horns, trumpets and tenor trombones, bass trombone, timpaniand strings. Considering the period of its composition and the relative stridency ofelements of the Fourth Symphony, it isnoticeable that an aura of tranquillity predominates in much of the Fifth Symphony. The work was dedicated, 'Withoutpermission and with the sincerest flattery to Jean Sibelius, whose great example is worthyof imitation, a tribute which, at the time, might have seemed unfashionable. The firstmovement Preludio opens with some harmonic ambiguity, the evocative French horn motifunderpinned 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 pastoralimplications, is heard, bringing shifts of tonality reaching a shaft of gentle sunlight inE major, marked Tranquillo, a theme to be used in the later opera. The Allegro developmentsection, at first in E flat, ends in the return of the French horns' motif, seeming againto pierce the mist, as the music moves forward to a dynamic climax with the secondsubject, which now clearly invites identification with the Alleluia from the composer'shymn-setting For all the saints who from their labours rest, the melody Sine nomine. Calmdescends again and the movement ends with the French horns' motif, finally muted. In theScherzo muted strings introduce pentatonic figuration, before wind instruments addfragments of melody of another kind, as one thematic element follows another, bringing aninterruption from the oboe and a jaunty passage that might even suggest for a moment thedifficulties 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. Theprincipal theme of the Romanza, heard from the cor anglais over gentle string chords, isused in the later opera, where it has the words, from Bunyan, 'He hath given me rest byhis sorrow and life by his death'. Cor anglais and oboe solos intermingle, as one echoesthe other and other woodwind instruments join them. A dynamic climax is followed by there- appearance of elements of the principal theme from the French horn, followed by thetrumpet, and there is music of greater intensity, before a hush descends, allowing a soloviolin its rhapsodic comment, followed by a muted French horn, before divided stringsbring the movement to a serene conclusion. The last movement, a Passacaglia, allows thecellos to introduce the ground on which the following sections are to be built, althoughthe form is treated with some freedom. The first violin introduces a hymn-likecountermelody 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 theground, against tremolo strings, to the clarinet and the flute, but before long the musichas moved forward to its inevitable goal, the contemplative mood suggested by thePreludio, introduced first by a triumphant horn-call, transformed from its earlier lessassertive appearance, with its opening violin theme now demonstrating association with thepassacaglia 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 af