The melancholy beauty of Vaughan Williams’ 5th symphony…


I’m looking forward to this Prom concert on 16 August which features three consecutive Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies, played by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. For those more familiar with RVW through the pastoral beauty of The Lark Ascending, the concert may come as a shock, beginning as it does with the explosively aggressive opening statement of the 4th, and ending with the long, enigmatic, uneasily subdued, never resolved finale of the 6th.

Between these two great works sits my favourite RVW symphony, the magnificent 5th. On the surface, this returns to the more familiar RVW ‘pastoral’ territory, but as Andrew Clements says in this short Guardian piece:-

There is a dark undertow to the symphony, which wells up most clearly in the scherzo’s brusque brass punctuations and in the troubled central section of the slow movement. The landscapes that the Fifth explores are by no means as benign as they at first appear, and the finest interpreters of the work do not mistake the surface calm for the key to the whole work.

The BBC Discovering Music page explains the genesis of the work:-

This work was written between 1938 and 1943 and in terms of style, the music is far more romantic as compared to the harsh dissonances prevalent in the fourth symphony. The music written in the pre-war years was often turbulent and restless, almost as a prophecy of the horrors to come. This work was composed during the hostilities and Vaughan Williams felt that people did not need yet more agitation and angst and so with this work we are back in the modal-polyphonic world in which tonality is only clearly established by the last movement.

This tonal ambiguity, as well as the unsettling urgency of some of the passages, and the underlying melancholy of the music, give this symphony a richness of experience which never fails to affect me. Above all, though, it is the moments of sublime luscious beauty, with their overwhelming sense of yearning, which I find so deeply and profoundly moving.


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