After the pastoral serenity of the previous decade’s work, the rage and violence in parts of the Fourth comes as a surprise to many.
One of the most striking features of Vaughan Williams’s life-work story is his seemingly limitless capacity for creative renewal. Just when everybody thought they had him safely pigeonholed, he would unleash another lightning-bolt from the blue.
When the Fourth Symphony appeared, in 1934, it made broadsheet headlines. Had the composer of the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending suddenly become a modernist – in his sixties? Where had all this rage, violence and sullen brooding come from – these garish, acerbic colours and vicious dissonances?
This reaction shows, however, that a lot of people hadn’t been paying very close attention to what the composer had been doing of late. Way back in the 1920s, in such seemingly Arcadian works as A Pastoral Symphony and Flos Campi, he had experimented with non-tonal harmonies, with new ways of creating and employing dissonance.
Then in the Blake-inspired ballet – or, rather, ‘Masque for Dancing’ – Job (1927-30), the portrayal of evil, suffering and alienation had elicited all sorts of new devices: complex, free-floating polyphony; bitter parody (unctuous saxophone, sneering ‘blasphemous’ chant parodies on brass); ‘demonic’ obsessive repeated rhythms, grotesquely scored.
From this it was a short step to the gritty, ultimately enigmatic Piano Concerto (1931), which so impressed the arch-modernist Béla Bartók. And, by another step, to the Fourth Symphony, in which it sometimes sounds as though Blake’s Satan has won after all, and that it is the putative Christian Quietism of the earlier Mass in G minor that has finally been flung out of Heaven.
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra perform Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 4 under Andrew Manze at the 2012 BBC Proms
Vaughan Williams was not a composer who was interested in innovation for its own sake. If he strove for the new, it was because he had something new to say, which required new means with which to say it. The fact that Vaughan Williams’s musical language became noticeably more turbulent and hard-edged as Europe entered the 1930s struck some listeners fairly quickly. The appearance of the anti-war cantata Dona nobis pacem (‘Grant us peace’) in 1936 was surely ample confirmation.
Deep in his prophetic soul, Vaughan Williams had sensed what was coming, and was making no secret of it. Was it warning, protest, or an explosion of fury and despair from one who had hoped that humanity might have learned its lesson from the ‘War to End All Wars’ – whose horrors he had experienced at first hand?
But there may have been other influences. One friend thought she heard in the Fourth Symphony a direct expression of Vaughan Williams’s terrible temper – the composer didn’t argue. There were reasons why that volcano might have been building up.
Vaughan Williams was devoted to his wife, Adeline, but there were huge strains in the relationship: Adeline was more or less crippled with arthritis for much of it, and her husband was scrupulously attentive. Emotional and sexual frustration, coupled with what some psychologists call ‘carer’s rage’, may also have found a safety valve in these big 1930s works. Whatever the case, there were soon to be immense changes.
Premiere: 10 April 1935, Queen’s Hall, London, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult
The new mood of the Fourth took many people by surprise. Apparently, it was a newspaper review of a new work by a European modernist that set Vaughan Williams’s imagination firing. Thus he experimented with complex rhythmic counterpoint, non-tonal harmonies and intricate working-out of two four-note motifs that at times comes close to serialism.
Yes, there is a great deal of violent, desolate and sarcastic music in this symphony, but what makes it really remarkable is how alive the music sounds. It’s as though a magnificent predatory beast, long kept caged or leashed, has at least been allowed its freedom.
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Vaughan Williams
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.