The Lark Ascending has topped Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame’ nine times. It is a rapturous piece of music, wedded to the English outdoors and well suited to listening on long, lazy summer days. How many people though, don’t explore what else Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote in his 60 plus years of composing? I can only scrape the surface in this post. Here are three of his symphonies, all different and pointing to other facets of the composer’s music.
Pastoral Symphony (Symphony no. 3), 1922
Reading this title, you might be forgiven for thinking the Pastoral Symphony would be the natural next thing to listen to. The answer’s ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Yes, it’s music about landscape and the sounds associated with it, but Vaughan Williams had Flanders in mind, not England. War, and its aftermath, were known to the composer from his work as an ambulance driver during World War 1. This is landscape quiet with loss and reflection. Tom Service, in the Guardian newspaper, has written a thought-provoking guide to the symphony. Here he is, quoting the composer:
“It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.”
Here’s the final movement, orchestra with the addition of a wordless soprano voice:
Dona Nobis Pacem, 1936
As the 1930s progressed, war must have seemed inevitable. Vaughan Williams felt strongly against the prospect of armed conflict. In this piece, he sets part of the Latin Mass: Dona nobis pacem is a plea to Grant us peace. Additional texts come from the American poet, Walt Whitman (a life-long inspiration for Vaughan Williams), the Bible, and political sources – quite a mix.
Here’s part of a Whitman poem used in the central section:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again
and ever again, this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
This link is to the final section of the piece. The mood varies a lot.
Symphony no. 4, 1934
Dona nobis pacem has moments of anger and militarism, but if you wish to experience the opposite of what Vaughan Williams’ music means to most people, give this link a listen:
The violence and grinding dissonances are still shocking. Peter Warlock’s well-known comment about Vaughan Williams’ music doesn’t apply here:
it is all just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate
It’s definitely not something to relax to after a hard day. This music serves as a reminder that artistic personalities aren’t one-dimensional; they change, develop, and are subject to outside forces as much as anyone else’s.
Symphony no. 5, 1943
All Vaughan Williams’ symphonies are completely individual, but the contrast between 4 and 5 is particularly striking. The music critic, Neville Cardus, describes the symphony in these terms:
The Fifth Symphony contains the most benedictory and consoling music of our time
Another contemporary critic in in the Times wrote:
[the symphony] belongs to that small body of music that, outside of late Beethoven, can properly be described as transcendental … this is music not only of contemplation but of benediction
‘Benediction’ is being blessed, of music bringing serenity and being in a good place. The third movement ‘Romanza’ is a particular example of this with its solo oboe. The music comes across as both ancient and timeless. In part, this happens from compositional techniques. You don’t need to know anything more, but if you’re interested, here’s a guide to modes.
The fifth is one of the composer’s most popular symphonies.
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, 1910
Here we’re back on more familiar territory. While this piece also appears on Classic FM’s list, it is useful to illustrate other elements of Vaughan Williams’ music. Hymns, Tudor music, and passion are prominent features.
Thomas Tallis navigated the quicksands of religious turmoil following Henry VIII’s death. The ‘Theme’ comes from one of the hymns he wrote for the brief period of fervid Protestantism under the rule of Henry’s son, Edward. If you listen to the link, trying focusing on the tenor line – that’s the theme.
The Fantasia was first performed in Gloucester Cathedral – a perfect venue for separating out the two groups of players and exploring spatial possibilities. The word that always comes to mind for me for this music is luminous. A visual descriptor for music? I think so. See if you agree.