II. Andante moderato
III. Scherzo: allegro molto
IV. Finale con epilogo fugato: allegro molto
The dissonance and harshness of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony took many listeners by surprise when Adrian Boult conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the first performance in Queen’s Hall, London, on 10 April 1935. Yet they should not have done.
A tougher harmonic idiom had been detectable in his oratorio Sancta Civitas (1923-5), in the Piano Concerto composed between 1926 and 1931 and in Job: A Masque for Dancing (1930). Vaughan Williams began to write the symphony in 1931 and completed it in 1934. As early as 6 January 1932 enough was ready to be played through on two pianos to Holst, as was Vaughan Williams’s custom. While Holst was in America in April of that year, he wrote to RVW: ‘How’s the new Sym.? When I get home in July, I want a 2-piano field day of both old and new versions’, so we can deduce that he had made various suggestions which had been acted upon. He did not live to hear the finished work.
Inevitably, the symphony’s boisterous mood and its grinding opening discord led commentators to interpret it as a reflection of the increasingly dangerous international situation, especially in Germany. But writing to a friend in 1937, Vaughan Williams emphatically denied this. ‘I wrote it’, he said, ‘not as a definite picture of anything external - e.g. the state of Europe - but simply because it occurred to me like that’. The only clue he gave was when he told friends that he began the symphony after he had read an account in The Times of a festival of contemporary music. A present-day Times critic, Geoff Brown, writing in the RVW Society Journal (No.21, June 2001) has plausibly traced this article to 1 August 1931 when H. C. Colles wrote a retrospect of the previous week’s festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music.
Discussing trends in modern symphonic writing, Colles wrote: ‘They all rely on the same order of stimuli. The hearer is prodded into activity by dissonance, soothed by sentiment, overwhelmed by the power of a battering climax. The appeal is primarily sensuous, even though the composer makes play with formal processes of thematic development, such as fugato, basso ostinato or variations... Perhaps there is no new principle to be discovered and the only thing to do is to make good music on an old principle...’
Reading that, Vaughan Williams may well have said to himself: ‘Just like Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony’, because V.W.’s Fourth Symphony in several respects emulates the ground-plan of Beethoven’s Fifth as well as ‘playing with the formal processes’ of fugato and ostinato and relying on ‘the same order of stimuli’ that Colles cited. It is remarkable, and I believe Mr Brown’s detective work has struck oil. And, like so much music, the symphony contains an element of self-portraiture and perhaps of personal frustration. Many of his friends recognised V.W.’s outbursts of temper in his music, his gusty humour and ribaldry. Perhaps that is why he said at a rehearsal: ‘I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant’.
The first movement begins with two four-note phrases which run through the symphony as unifying motifs. The second subject is an ardent melody for strings (‘soothed by sentiment’). This is elbowed aside by a march-like theme for horns and strings which, transferred to strings in D flat, brings the movement to a sombre close. The slow movement is based on the second motto-theme, now heard on trumpets and trombones, then woodwind. Muted violins have a dirge-like theme over a plucked bass which leads to a long and bleak flute solo. The scherzo is rumbustious, with a trio in which V.W. seems almost to parody his folk-dance style. As in Beethoven, a bridge passage erupts into the finale’s march-theme over an ‘oompah’ bass (V.W.’s term). There are reminiscences of the first movement before a fugal epilogue reaches ‘a battering climax’ with the return of the work’s grinding opening bars. The end is a chord in F, slammed in our face.
© Michael Kennedy 2008