Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 (Symphony Study No. 7 of 118)

by Glenn on August 22, 2015

After listening to Symphony No. 4 by Ralph Vaughan Williams, I was thinking that maybe a Haydn symphony as a palate cleanser was in order, but I decided to listen to the next Vaughan Williams symphony (No. 5) on Michael Steinberg’s list.

I didn’t take long before I realized that I’d heard this before. But it’s been a long time. This is the sound I associate with Ralph Vaughan Williams.

i.

Very simple arch construction. Builds to a climax halfway, with a second more valedictory climax ¾ of the way through. A horn figure is a recurring thematic element. It is so interesting to come back to this piece after so many years. It’s glorious music—antithetical somehow to Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4, which is all head, where this is all heart. Where Symphony No. 4 is acerbic and provocative, Symphony No. 5  is cool and irenic. So colorful and delightful.

ii.

I’ve had the scherzo of William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 in my head for the last couple of days. It’s interesting to hear how soothing an approach Vaughan Williams takes to the scherzo. Restrained until the very end when the brass are allowed to provide some bite for a brief moment before we return to calm.

iii.

Ah, those lovely string cords at the beginning. So much space. It could be dawn in the English countryside with a gentle mist. A solo instrument (english horn?) announces the arrival of the sun. And so my mind goes to associations because the music is so evocative. I think, “This sounds like …” where in his Symphony No. 4 I’m just wondering when it will all be over. The Fourth is a sterile science experiment indoors. The Fifth is a walk through the English countryside.

But then there are some religious allusions, too. The “Alleluia” from the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” makes this incredibly spiritual music for me in a very traditional and orthodox way.

This symphony oozes nostalgia. I’ll want to hear this again.

iv.

Meter and mood change to begin the last movement. Themes from the first movement return and bring closure.

This is quiet and reflective music which displays an English reserve.

The recording I listened to (twice, now in the last few days) was by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with André Previn conducting. I have no idea how many recordings they made together, but it seems like it was a delightful partnership. I don’t think I’ll be looking for another recording of this symphony.

David Hurwitz at Classics Today offered a review of this recording:

“When this disc was first issued in 1989 it was surprising to discover that Previn’s singularly supple and evocative view of the Fifth Symphony hadn’t mellowed a bit since his superb LSO recording for RCA. Just the opposite in fact: the finale is measurably swifter in tempo, though the remaining movements have hardly changed at all interpretively speaking. The Romanza, just a touch slower than previously, conveys the music’s mood of hushed concentration particularly well in this, the composer’s most mellow orchestral work.”

This symphony premiered on 24 June 1943 with Vaughan Williams, himself, conducting the London Philharmonic. It’s interesting to think about art during a time of war. I think about the years of 1939–1945 as trouble for the world, and yet here in the midst of ugliness is this thing of beauty.

Michael Steinberg suggests, “One way of describing the symphony’s scenario is to say that it recapitulates in thirty-some minutes the evolution in the history of Western music from the church modes to major and minor keys.” Steinberg notes that Vaughan Williams did not care for the music of Mahler or Elgar but felt a strong connection to Sibelius, seven of whose symphonies make Steinberg’s list. I hope I can understand the connection a little better.

One irony: While the Symphony No. 5 is pleasurable listening, the memory of it is rather haunting. You have to be careful about sweeping generalizations when you talk about music history (or, one imagines, anything), but I think it’s fair to say that the aesthetic aims of symphony composers evolve over time. The approach to beauty Vaughan Williams takes is different from the one Haydn, for example, takes. As listeners we have our own notions of beauty, too.