A guide to Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 6

The story behind Vaughan Williams's 6th symphony in E minor 

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A guide to Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 6
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Writing for the screen brings an intriguing new flavour to the composer’s writing, which includes touches of jazz.

 

Composed: 1944-7 (Scherzo revised in 1950)
Premiere: 21st April 1948, Royal Albert Hall, London. BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult  

 

Like No. 5, the Sixth Symphony begins with a question: again, what key am I in? But instead of hazy ambiguity, all here is turbulence, clashing harmonies, skirling woodwind and surging strings. After this arresting opening, the Symphony goes on getting more and more original – through a bleak march-haunted Moderato and a vicious, frenetic Scherzo to a finale marked sempre pp e senza crescendo (‘always very quiet and without rise or fall’). In the end, two string chords swing slowly back and forward, fading into silence. Anything less like the calm of the Fifth Symphony is hard to imagine.

 

A new life...

How many people discover an important new skill in their seventies? As the British film industry geared itself up for major wartime spirit-raising, directors turned to well-known British composers to provide suitably stirring scores. Vaughan Williams discovered a new enthusiasm for this kind of work, despite its many restrictions. A colleague remembers him grumbling as he set to work on yet another battle scene: ‘I’ve had enough of all these crashes and bangs. Why can’t I write some pretty nurse music?’

As the war reached its end, VW was approached to provide something festive to mark the final triumph. The most significant result was Thanksgiving for Victory (1944) – unmistakably patriotic, but not quite the bombastic feast of flag-raising that the title might lead one to expect.

 

 

Far more important is the work that occupied him during 1944-7 – the Sixth Symphony – which draws on the wartime cinematic experience, not just in its reworking of two ideas originally intended for the film Flemish Farm (a story of resistance in occupied Belgium), but also in the way its musical narrative unfolds. The appearance of the very English ‘Big Tune’ in the first movement, amid so much turbulence and unease, is like a surprise cut from rubble and smoke to a peaceful pastoral scene.

 

Influences

War clearly left its mark on the Sixth Symphony (the saxophone theme in the Scherzo was apparently VW’s reaction to the killing of a black jazz musician in a Luftwaffe air raid), but the composer denied that this was what the symphony was ‘about’. He liked it when a friend described the eerily still finale as ‘The agnostic’s Paradisum’.

Could the Sixth Symphony have been the agnostic response to the Fifth’s apparently religious serenity – as though these two
great symphonies were the opposing panels of a very singular diptych? In 1951, VW produced three fine unaccompanied choral pieces: Three Shakespeare Songs. One is a setting of Prospero’s speech from Act IV of The Tempest: ‘We are such stuff as dreams
are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’ The setting ends with the same two chords with which the finale of the
Sixth fades out.

 

 

The Sixth Symphony dominates Vaughan Williams’s output in the immediate post-war years. Apart from one big film score, The Loves of Joanna Godden (1946), there were few significant distractions. Perhaps the composer needed to concentrate as much energy as possible on this extraordinary work – after all, as some would have observed, he was now well into his seventies. Now, perhaps, he could allow himself a much-needed rest.

But another film project, begun in the year that VW finished the Sixth Symphony, was to lead him in a surprising new direction.

 

Recommended recording:

LSO/Richard Hickox

Chandos CHAN 10103

 

 

 

 

 

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