Vaughan Williams: Symphony no 3

Vaughan William’s Symphony No. 3 was started in 1916 and completed in 1921. It was originally published as A Pastoral Symphony and wasn’t numbered until later. It was first performed in London on 16 January 1922, with Adrian Boult conducting. One critic remarked that it reminded him of “a cow looking over a gate”. Vaughan Williams emphasized later in a letter to Ursula Wood that “It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.”
Vaughan Williams’ initial inspiration to write this symphony came during World War One after hearing a bugler practising and accidentally playing an interval of a seventh instead of an octave. This ultimately led to the trumpet cadenza in the second movement.

In August 1914 he had volunteered to serve as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was nearly forty-two years of age and was therefore old enough to avoid it entirely. He witnessed a daily toll of casualties – many of them close friends, including the young composer George Butterworth, to whom he dedicated his London Symphony. As his wife Ursula said: “Working in the ambulance gave Ralph vivid awareness of how men died.”

The most obvious wartime memorial in the piece is the trumpet cadenza in the second movement, a dream of a Last Post-like fanfare that drifts into the music’s consciousness. The symphony is in four movements. None of the movements are particularly fast or upbeat (the composer himself described it as “four movements, all of them slow”).

1) Molto moderato

2) Lento moderato – Moderato maestoso – trumpet cadenza

3) Moderato pesante

4) Lento – here the orchestra is joined by a vocal soloist.

The first movement, like the second and the fourth, is melancholic and mournful. The harmony moves from one “mode” to another (different divisions of the scale), so that there’s an unsettling feeling to the way the music moves.

The second movement is dark-toned and opens with a solo for French Horn. A cadenza for natural trumpet brings to life the sound of the First World War – the army bugles sounding out at nightfall over no-man’s land and the trenches.

The third movement, Molto Pesante, lightens the mood in the form of a scherzo with a strong sense of tonality and form with contrasting G minor and G major sections. Heartiness enters into the music. We hear the brassy cheeriness of a folk song or perhaps a regimental march.

The final movement begins with a soprano singing without words and marked in the score as ‘distant’. The song is taken up by the orchestra before the soprano returns ending the symphony accompanied only by pianissimo violins.

Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra has also performed Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 5. We hope you enjoy listening to Symphony No. 3.

Angela Kirsten, Bassoon