Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 (Symphony Studies No. 6 of 118)

by Glenn on August 16, 2015

This is dissonant music. I mean really dissonant. Both in harmonic and rhythmic structure. This is English, but it’s not Elgar, though Vaughan Williams was writing at a different time and in a different world than Elgar’s when he wrote his two published symphonies. (A 3rd Elgar Symphony was incomplete at his death in 1934 and has been realized by Anthony Payne.)

Vaughan Williams began composing this symphony in 1935 and when it premiered in 1937 some heard it as a statement about the world. Hitler had seized power in Germany and Mussolini was making noise in Italy. For many there was a prophetic feeling about this work. But according to Michael Steinberg, Vaughan Williams was “annoyed … by some of the topical, political, and apocalyptic interpretations imposed on his Sixth Symphony.”

Vaughan Williams himself had an interesting objectivity about this symphony. In a letter to a friend (quoted by Steinberg from Michael Kennedy’s The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams), Vaughan Williams wrote,

“I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external—e.g. the state of Europe—but simply because it occurred to me like this—I can’t explain why—I don’t think that sitting down and thinking about great things ever produces a great work of art … a thing just comes out—or it doesn’t—usually doesn’t—I always live in hope, as all writers must …” In rehearsing the symphony with the BBC for its premiere, he said, “I don’t whether I like it, but this is what I meant.”

His wife, Ursula, thought it autobiographical. She offered (quoted from another biography),

“… no one seems to have observed how … closely it is related to the character of the man who wrote it. The towering furies of which he was capable, his fire, pride and strength are all revealed and so are his imagination and lyricism. He was experimenting with purely musical ideas …”

My initial impression is aligned with that last thought, that this is pure music—way to the left on the spectrum of absolute to programmatic music, which means that I don’t readily gravitate toward it.

I’m guessing all three may be true: artists exist in a moment of history which certainly can influence them, but artists can take pen to paper to make a statement they want to make, and that statement may be autobiographical.

I listened to a version by Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The playing is great, although I haven’t referenced it against anything. Steinberg refers positively to a recording made Sir Adrian Boult that is bettered (in emotional impact) by one conducted by the composer.


The first movement is storm and fury and then beautiful strings at the end. It begins nowhere we’d like to be but arrives someplace restful.


The tempo makes you think this is a peaceful movement. But a restless tension carries throughout this quiet and contemplative movement. The pursuit of the sublime doesn’t appear to be the goal. It’s uneasy. The strings and flute clash profoundly yet delicately at the end with the play of major vs. minor. Diseased beauty.


Now the tension is overt. Manic fury. Which rolls right into …


Oompah oompah begins the last movement. And maybe, at last, some humor and folk-like elements to break the tension. Then the Vaughan Williams of Greensleves and Thomas Tallis shows up. For a moment it is “what most people think of as the essential Vaughan Williams: quiet, contemplative, with few fortissimos and few allegros.”1 Back to the oompah. There are some highly syncopated moments that have a jazzy feel to them. These are not rhythmic structures that you associate with a classical orchestra.


Without knowing what this music means, it certainly leaves you restless. Nothing feels resolved. In a biographical sketch, Steinberg referred to it as “The sometimes harshly dissonant Fourth Symphony.” That’s understatement.

Interesting, Vaughan Williams did not number his symphonies. He referred to them by key (F minor in this case) or by programmatic element, “A London Symphony” (No. 2) for example. Publishers have added numbers to help keep things organized.


1This is Michael Steinberg quoting Vaughan Williams from a program note about his Pastoral (3rd) Symphony.