Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6 (Symphony Study No. 8 of 118)

by Glenn on August 23, 2015

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6
First performance: 1948
Bernard Haitink | London Philharmonic Orchestra | Recorded: 1997

The early symphonies (Haydn and Mozart) have a kind of homogeneity about them. Although the tunes change and the order of the interior movements vary and the joyful finales may use different structures, the big picture for each of these symphonies demonstrate a similar conception of how a symphony sounds.

With Vaughan Williams, the symphonies I have listened to have radically different aesthetic styles. His Symphony No. 4 is aggressive, his Symphony No. 5 is nostalgic, his Symphony No. 6 is disturbing.


We’re in a very different place from Symphony No. 5. I get a strong “film vibe” from this music. Lots of energy and tonal confusion. This is a frantic work. It feels episodic, with dramatic shifts in feel from time to time.

Michael Steinberg says the Symphony No. 6 by Vaughan Williams was very popular from the very beginning with 100 performances in just a little over two years.

If this is film music, it definitely accompanies action/adventure.

All of a sudden we hit this lovely theme. It has a folk feel to it, but with the sweeping orchestration it suggests a backdrop for something on the big screen.

For a moment we were light, but now it’s dark again.


A seamless transition into the moderato. This movement sounds more like the Vaughan Williams of Symphony No. 5, but I get the sense that this is music that influenced John Williams. I’m thinking a cross between Star Wars and Indiana Jones, particularly with the spacious chords moving in a parallel pattern.

I hear all these musical allusions as though this is music to accompany action. Yet Steinberg says that Vaughan Williams was bothered by those who tried to attach extra musical meaning to this symphony. According to Steinberg, one music critic “referred to the Sixth as his ‘War Symphony.’” It was first performed in 1948 and with the bleakness of the ending it wasn’t a stretch to imagine “a depiction of a world flattened by The Bomb.”

This second movement is much more relaxed than the first movement, but there is a quiet tension with a lot of dissonance. Because the music isn’t loud, this movement doesn’t feel overly aggressive. The repetition of a rhythmic figure adds significant tension.


We roll right into the 3rd movement—a scherzo. Steinberg makes a connection in this music to Shostakovich’s. While I’m really only familiar with Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, I can hear that connection.

When the first symphonies were written, there normally was a movement in a meter of three, a waltz or a scherzo. It was dance music. In this scherzo we’re very far from those early symphonies.

A saxophone appears in this movement, which makes me think Stravinsky. This is music firmly planted in the twentieth century. There is no looking back at the romanticism of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Up to now the 5th and 6th symphonies of Vaughan Williams are yin and yang. The Fifth is quiet music with a few punctuated moments. The sixth is overbearing with a few quiet moments.


Now in the 4th movement we’ve gone quiet. Because the movements all connect, I wonder why this symphony isn’t considered more of a tone poem.

Things are pretty bleak here in the fourth movement. The music is quiet but there is a quiet desperation here—a relentless restlessness. Where say an Elgar would take a slow movement to create a sublime moment, Vaughan Williams is interested in dis-ease. Nothing is settled in this anxious, nervous music.

At the end, I say we’re nowhere. Nothing has been settled except to say that nothing is settled. What is clear is we’ve experienced ten minutes of despair and desolation.


These symphonies of Vaughan Williams were interesting for me. the Fifth I’ll enjoy again, even though there is a heaviness that stays with you after you listen to it. The Fourth and Sixth were not that satisfying for me, at least on this first formal listening. Mahler’s music is cathartic. Vaughan Williams’ Fourth and Fifth are intellectual pursuits—statements rather than feelings.