A guide to Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 8

We share the story behind the references in Williams's Symphony No.8 


The Eighth, thought by many to be the lightest of the symphonies, contains many references, none of which Vaughan Williams feels the need to deny


Composed: 1953-5 (slight revision in 1956)
Premiere: 2 May 1956, Free Trade Hall, ManchesterHallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli

First sketches for the Eigth Symphony date from 1953, and Vaughan Williams took the rough score with him when he went to Cornell University, New York, to give some lectures in 1954.

It was in this year that his Christmas cantata Hodie had its first performance in Worcester Cathedral. He again awarded the first performance to the Hallé in Manchester, and the Eighth Symphony was sufficiently complete for its dedicatee, Sir John Barbirolli, to give it a run-through in the composer’s presence in February 1956.

The Eighth’s Style

The Eighth is sometimes considered the lightest of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, a jeu d’esprit, but this is only partially true. As was his custom, he had it played through on the piano at an early stage to a select group of friends. One of these ‘jurors’ had questioned whether it was a symphony, and suggested Sinfonietta. The composer replied, ‘I am not taking your advice. I feel the thing is a symphony and it is going to remain one.’

All his previous symphonies could be said to embody some extra-musical idea, rather than an explicit programme. The Eighth is the exception. It has no sub-text, and is more like ‘just a piece of music’, to quote him on another occasion. The four movements are sharply differentiated in character, the second being for wind only, the third for strings. Although scored for what Vaughan Williams called a ‘Schubert’ orchestra, there is a large and exotic percussion section, ‘including all the “phones” and “spiels” known to the composer’ (in fact, side drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, three tuned gongs and celesta, requiring five players).


The first movement, which Vaughan Williams nicknamed ‘seven variations in search of a theme’, is among his most subtle and sophisticated pieces. The second and fifth variations were written first, which explains the remark about searching for a theme.

It has been suggested that the flute solo in the first variation bears a relationship to the ‘human’ music in the ‘Intermezzo’ of Antartica and also to Holst’s tune for the Remembrance Day hymn ‘O Valiant Hearts’, so perhaps a subtext exists after all.

An American critic noted the resemblance of the opening theme of the Cavatina slow movement to the Passion chorale O Sacred Head. Vaughan Williams wrote to him: ‘I was thinking about the slow movement, and how I wanted a cello tune and it suddenly occurred to me how lovely that chorale would sound on the cellos so, as far as I can remember, without deliberately adopting it, the two themes got mixed up in my mind with the result you know. I am quite unrepentant!’

The Toccata, with its riot of percussion, bells and brass, sounds light-hearted, but the composer in his programme-note refers to its ‘short, rather sinister exordium’, which hints at a more profound intention.

At a visit to Covent Garden in February 1956 to hear Puccini’s Turandot, Vaughan Williams was fascinated by the tuned gongs, and added them to the Symphony (alongside an already expanded percussion section) saying they were ‘not absolutely essential but their inclusion was highly desirable’.

Recommended Recording:

Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
BBC Legends BBCL 4100-2