There was more to Vaughan Williams than The Lark Ascending. The 20th-century composer was one of Britain’s finest symphonists, with nine to his name, spanning fifty years of his creative life. There’s something for everyone among these works.
Which is the best Vaughan Williams Symphony?
9. Symphony No. 9 in E minor
In ninth position Symphony No. 9 in E minor. This sombre work is the most enigmatic of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, written in the final years of his life before his death in 1958, at the age of 85. Its hinterland is found in Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the landscape around Stonehenge, a place of ancient mystery; the composer later removed references to these programmatic inspirations, but it’s hard not to attribute something of the music’s serious mood to them. ‘
There was no denying the coolness of the critics’ reception of the music’, noted Vaughan Williams’s biographer Michael Kennedy of the premiere. Ever since, love for the Ninth Symphony has been a slow burn.
8. Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No. 7)
Next is Sinfonia Antartica. Before the symphony, came the film. Scott of the Antarctic (1948) traces the tragic expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who was pipped to the South Pole by the Norwegians, then froze to death just 11 miles from a food store that would have saved him and his men. Vaughan Williams’s brilliant film score gave him more than enough extra material and enthusiasm to pen the Sinfonia Antartica (1952).
Although the Grove Dictionary of Music writes off the piece as ‘the least successful of the mature symphonies’ because it’s ‘neither symphonic nor sufficiently programmatic’, it’s hard to resist its evocations of the terror and grandeur of the remote icy wilderness. That said, the atmospheric music is even better heard alongside the polar visuals.
7. A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)
In seventh position is his first symphony. Of all Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, it’s A Sea Symphony, arguably, that sounds most of its time – which is both a strength and a weakness. Its maritime subject was popular with British composers at the turn of the twentieth century, and Vaughan Williams launches us onto a great musical voyage with a satisfying splash, as the chorus exhorts us to ‘behold, the sea itself!’.
Parry described the piece as ‘big stuff with impertinences’, while Vaughan Williams later referred to it, affectionately one assumes, as ‘that old thing’. Completed in 1909, setting poetry by Walt Whitman, this choral symphony marks the start of an important musical voyage for the composer – even if there are longueurs.
6. Symphony No. 8 in D minor
Sixth is number 8. Compact, taut, and characterful, Vaughan Williams's Eighth Symphony hardly gets its fair share of the limelight. Vaughan Williams was in his eighties when he wrote this four-movement piece, which looks back at the music of his younger years with a shrewd yet affectionate eye.
If the deft Scherzo and joyful finale earn the Eighth its reputation as the most light-hearted of his symphonies, the Cavatina adds a note of serious introspection. Nostalgic echoes of the lush Tallis Fantasia and the soaring violin of The Lark Ascending are tempered by lean writing for strings alone, while elsewhere the use of a large percussion session – and tuned gongs inspired by Puccini’s Turandot – create an engagingly distinctive sound-world.
5. Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3)
His third symphony is in fifth place. The ‘Pastoral’ of this symphony is not some glorious rural idyll – or, as the composer put it, ‘not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted’. Instead, the landscape is one that Vaughan Williams saw while working as an ambulance driver on the First World War battlefields in France. This piece is a musical reckoning with those difficult wartime experiences – and the result is music that’s elusive, meditative, and ambiguous, a lone trumpeter and a wordless soprano voice adding to the elegiac quality.
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4. Symphony No. 4 in F minor
Fourth is number 4. William Walton thought this was the greatest symphony written since Beethoven. Yet Vaughan Williams's Fourth Symphony marked a radical departure from the worlds of his first three symphonies. This is music that explodes with rage, piling up angry dissonances and fortissimo outbursts. While the composer denied that its furious spirit was a reaction to increasing global tension and the rise of the Nazis, it’s hard to separate art from life.
His biographer felt it was ‘a kind of self-portrait: the towering rages of which Vaughan Williams was capable, his robust humour, his poetic nature – all these are here.’ According to his second wife Ursula, the trigger was a review of a modernist symphony in The Times, whose use of cyclical repeating motifs Vaughan Williams felt compelled to recreate. ‘I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant,’ he said about the finished score.
3. A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2)
A London Symphony is in third place. Just as Turner’s landscapes and Dickens’s novels immortalised London in paint and prose, so did Vaughan Williams capture the essence of the capital in music. The composer once said that ‘Symphony by a Londoner’ might be a better title, because the symphony stands alone and absolute – but for many listeners, the hints of London are part of the piece’s appeal.
The Westminster Chimes (aka Big Ben) ring out in the first movement, in an atmospheric evocation of the Thames. The Lento suggests the melancholic beauty of Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon, according to Vaughan Williams, while the use of mouth organs and mechanical pianos adds ‘local colour’ in the Scherzo.
The finale of A London Symphony takes us into metaphorical and philosophical territory, inspired by a passage in an HG Wells novel tracing a journey out to sea: ‘Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass.’
2. Symphony No. 6 in E minor
In second place is Symphony No. 6. Vaughan Williams headed into new territory with each symphony. His Sixth Symphony is a strange, unsettling and bleak, written as if in the grip of an apocalyptic vision, each movement strikingly original. He wrote it from 1944-47, as the world tore itself apart, and the brutal atomic age was unleashed, but once again the composer sought to distance his music from real-world events and denied this was a war symphony.
But how else to hear this music? An anguished cry opens the symphony, while a fateful three-note motif haunts the Moderato – an echo of the violent ‘Mars’ from Holst’s The Planets. After a turbulent Scherzo, including a trio which pays homage to jazz musicians killed by wartime bombing, Vaughan Williams ends with a chilling epilogue. Here, we are given a hint of meaning, when he linked it to lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: ‘We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.’
1. Symphony No. 5 in D major
For me the best Symphony No. 5. Ignore Copland. Yes, the American composer wrote a masterpiece or three, but he was surely wrong when he joked that ‘listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for 45 minutes’. For this symphony is one of the pinnacles of Vaughan Williams’s artistic achievements, breathing serenity and wisdom.
‘Agonies lie beneath its spiritual radiance,’ argued composer Anthony Payne, and indeed the Second World War was raging while Vaughan Williams composed much of this piece, begun in 1938 and completed in 1943. While the composer was atheist in his early life, and later agnostic, the symphony has a spiritual strength than underpins its surface beauties.
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Music was for Vaughan Williams, after all, ‘the one thing that defies bombs and blitzes’. And several of the symphony’s themes were drawn from the as-then incomplete opera he’d been working on, The Pilgrim’s Progress, based on John Bunyan’s Christian allegory depicting the journey from The City of Destruction to the Celestial City.
Vaughan Williams’s Fifth begins with hushed strings and gentle horn calls, drawing us into a world that seems exist just out of reach, stepping out of time and place. A will-o’-the wisp scherzo, an early version of which was labelled ‘ghosts of the past’, dances by, leading to one of the great symphonic slow movements, the Romanza.
The beautiful cor anglais solo echoes his setting of the words ‘he hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death’ in The Pilgrim’s Progress; a powerfully bittersweet mood infuses the whole movement. Vaughan Williams ends with a finely constructed Passacaglia, ending in radiant D major. No wonder The Times, after the premiere, called it transcendental: ‘This is music not only of contemplation but benediction.’