A guide to Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 9

We explore what influenced Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 9

Published: July 17, 2019 at 9:00 am

The Ninth Symphony and finale to Vaughan Williams’s life returns at times to the pastoral, but in darker, dramatic moments, reflects the trauma of his wartime experiences.


When did Vaughan Williams compose his Ninth Symphony?

Vaughan Williams was 83 when he began his Ninth Symphony in 1956, which shows the composer to have been still at the height of his powers. He was also working on the cantata Epithalamion, he later wrote the Ten Blake Songs and began a three-act opera, Thomas the Rhymer. In another 1957 work, Variations for Brass Band, he was much taken with the flugelhorn, which he included in the score of the symphony together with three saxophones. He described it as a ‘beautiful and neglected instrument not usually allowed in the select circles of the orchestra, and banished to the brass band, where it is allowed to indulge in the bad habit of vibrato to its heart’s content. While in the orchestra it will be obliged to sit up and play straight’. The saxophones and flugelhorn impart a special dark tone-colour to the score.

When was Vaughan Williams Ninth Symphony first performed?

Vaughan Williams Ninth Symphony was first performed on 2 April, 1958, at the Royal Festival Hall, London by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent

What influenced Vaughan Williams Ninth Symphony?

One contributory factor, as it had been in the Eighth Symphony, was Bach's St Matthew Passion, which he conducted every year at the Leith Hill Music Festival in Dorking. The principal subject of the first movement, first heard on trombones and tuba, occurred to him after playing some of the organ part of the opening of the Passion.

Another important starting point for the Ninth was the idea of a symphony about Salisbury and Hardy’s Wessex, particularly the association with Tess of the D’Urbervilles and her arrest at Stonehenge for murdering her seducer. Although this programme was abandoned, it did not disappear entirely.

The second movement in particular is the Stonehenge scene. But Vaughan Williams moved away from a literal depiction of Hardy’s idea of the gods killing Tess for sport to a wider consideration of sacrifice generally. His experiences in WWI seemed again to be haunting him. He had seen another world war since then, and the near-hopelessness of the human condition must have troubled such a sensitive artist, whose humanity is the focal point of his work.

The Ninth's Style

Vaughan Williams was not a believer in a religious sense, but he believed in the human spirit. The mood of the Ninth Symphony is ambiguous and enigmatic. It is on an ample scale, it looks back and it looks forward. One of its themes is derived from an early and abandoned tone poem and it also occurs as the ‘limitless heaving breast’ of A Sea Symphony. Clearly it had some special significance for him. The work contains wistful pastoral episodes, but there is savagery too, and a darkness that has been interpreted as pessimism.

It seems more likely that Vaughan Williams feared the worst for mankind but hoped against hope for the best. He loved Arnold’s poem Thyrsis and could easily have prefaced this finale with the words: ‘The light we sought is shining still’ – dimly, perhaps. When the Ninth was first performed, many failed to recognise it as one of his deepest and finest works. After 50 years, that has changed.

Reception and Death

On August 25, 1958, during the night before he was to attend Sir Adrian Boult’s recording sessions of the Ninth, Ralph Vaughan Williams died suddenly and peacefully from a coronary thrombosis. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey near to Purcell and Stanford.

Symphony No. 9, dedicated to the Royal Philharmonic Society and arguably the hardest of the symphonies, was first played through on 21 March, 1958, after which Vaughan Williams cut and revised the finale. Asked for his reaction to the cool critical reception, he replied: ‘I don’t think they can quite forgive me for still being able to do it at my age.’

Recommended Recording:
Leopold Stokowski & His Symphony Orchestra
Cala CACD 0539

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