A guide to Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 5

We explore the brilliant composer's D major symphony 

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A guide to Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 5
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The world is at war, yet the tone of the Fifth Symphony and Vaughan Williams’s other works at this time are mostly gentle, melodic and uplifting. Some listeners welcomed the Fifth Symphony as a return to the old VW, regarding the Fourth as a temporary aberration. But the experience of concentrating musical argument so rigorously in No. 4 left its mark on the Fifth. For all its warmth, melodic generosity and seeming  spaciousness, this is also an intricate, highly sophisticated piece of  work. It begins with a question: ‘What key am I in?’ The ultimate answer is aserene resolution in D major, surrounded by a quasi-choral halo of string counterpoint.


 

Composed: 1938-43

Premiere: 24th June 1943, Royal Albert Hall, London. London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vaughan Williams

 

Background

As Britain moved towards World War II – erratically at first, but with increasing momentum in 1939 – there were signs of a profound transformation in the tone of Vaughan Williams’s major works. The gorgeous, tenderly positive Serenade to Music, based on verses from the final scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, appeared in 1938. In marked contrast to many of the works of the 1930s, it offers a welcome reminder that there’s more to musical creativity than the reflecting or purging of anguished emotions – important though that is.

 

 

As the country entered the war, VW threw himself into morale-boosting activities, and a startling range of volunteer work, including campaigning on behalf of refugees from Germany. In the midst of so much solid practical achievement the Serenade is a reminder of how much Vaughan Williams believed in music’s wider social relevance – uplifting whole communities as much as cultured individuals.

 

Previous works

If some of the works clustered around the Fourth Symphony showed a concern to hold a mirror up to increasingly violent times, those that emerged at the time of the Fifth (1938-43) seem set upon performing almost the opposite function: reminding people of peace during war, of what is noblest in human nature at a time when the worst prevails. The wonderful Oboe Concerto (1943-5) shares something of the improvisatory freedom and pastoral sweetness of the famous Lark Ascending, but despite an intermittent yearning note, it has little of The Lark’s heart-rending sadness. The central ‘Minuet & Musette’ has a Gallic lightness of touch
and delicacy – perhaps a posthumous echo of VW’s teacher, Maurice Ravel, who had died in 1937.

In the choral Valiant for Truth (1940), there was an important re-engagement with VW’s long-running operatic project, The Pilgrim’s Progress, begun back in the 1920s, in which he explored the paradoxes of his ‘Christian agnosticism’. And the previous years saw the appearance of one of his most original explorations of the spirit of English folksong, Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus (1939), which explores five different versions of what is apparently the same traditional melody – so close, yet so different.

 

The symphony itself

Something of both these works spills over into the Fifth Symphony, one of Vaughan Williams’s most original, sophisticated, yet also most loveable works. The tonal ambiguity of its opening is ultimately resolved in radiant orchestral polyphony, which recalls the spirit of the Elizabethan choral masters, Tallis and Byrd, yet which could only be from the 20th century.

 

 

In 1938, the year he began the Fifth, VW had met the young poet, Ursula Wood. Apparently it was love at first sight, on both sides, even though the composer was well into his 60s and Ursula was not yet 30. Though VW continued to care for Adeline, the relationship with Ursula flourished in secret. So does the Fifth Symphony ultimately distil the essence of what VW valued in religious faith? Or does this new-found serenity stem from a more personal kind of fulfilment?

 

Recommended recording:

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Vaughan Williams

Somm SOMMCD 071

 

 

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