Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5

Preludio; Scherzo; Romanza; Passacaglia

Vaughan Williams composed pretty melodies, such as ‘The Lark Ascending’ and ‘Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis’. Born in Gloucestershire, his entire upbringing was steeped in tradition. He was related both to the pottery Wedgwoods and to Charles Darwin. Gustav Holst was a close friend. He went to school at Charterhouse.

Vaughan Williams composed this symphony following years of writing ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. He was concerned that he would not finish this opera. The symphony contains moral threads and fragments from it.

Vaughan Williams was in his late sixties and early seventies when he wrote his Fifth Symphony (1938-43). Hence, World War II surrounded him. He made the first sketches in 1936, began composition in earnest in 1938, completed the work early in 1943, and made minor revisions in 1951. It was first performed with Vaughan Williams conducting the London Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in June 1943, during the Promenade Concerts, and dedicated to Sibelius, ‘without permission’.

The instruments included in this symphony are two flutes (one doubling as a piccolo), oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, two French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, cellos, double basses, violas and violins. It is structured in fairly typical four-movement form:

The first movement is opened by the bass, and answered by the French horn. The strings imply the winds of nature. Several of the musical themes in this movement are used in Act I, Scene I of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. Listen out for the pizzicato played by the bass.

The focus of the second movement is rhythm. Listen out for the violas, and then the violins confusing the rhythms.

The slow movement might well be considered the spiritual core of the symphony. The opening melody is from a lyric sung by Pilgrim in the opera. “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death”. The agitated theme of the central section is again taken from Pilgrim’s lyric, “Save me! Save me, Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear”.

The finale ushers in a return of the themes from the first movement, resolved into a quiet valediction played first by the woodwind and then by the upper strings. We enjoy playing this triumphant melody with the fanfare motifs.

Some friends tend to imagine a scene behind classical music. Listening to Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5, what images do you picture?

If you have enjoyed this symphony, I would recommend finding a peaceful moment to listen to ‘A Sea Symphony’ (No. 1) and ‘A London Symphony’ (No. 2).

Megan Lewis Healy, Trumpet