The work is among the least performed of Vaughan Williams's symphonies, but it has gained the reputation of being a subtly beautiful elegy for the dead of World War I and a meditation on the sounds of peace. Like many of the composer's works, the Pastoral Symphony is not programmatic, but its spirit is very evocative. None of the movements are particularly fast or upbeat, but there are isolated extrovert sections to be found.
It was first performed in London on 16 January 1922, with Adrian Boult the conductor.
The symphony was dismissed by Constant Lambert, who wrote that its "creation of a particular type of grey, reflective, English-landscape mood has outweighed the exigencies of symphonic form". (Peter Warlock's often-quoted comment that "it is all just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate" was in fact a comment on Vaughan Williams's style in general, and was not aimed specifically at A Pastoral Symphony, which he on the contrary described as "A truly splendid work" and "the best English orchestral music of this century".) Vaughan Williams emphasized, however, that the work had nothing to do with what he called "lambkins frisking about" (i.e., English pastoral scenery); its reference is the fields of France during World War I, where the composer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
The symphony is in four movements:
Contentedly calm in tone, but with a darker central section, the opening movement contains harmonies reminiscent of Ravel (with whom Vaughan Williams had studied in 1907–08). The music is lyrical, often features solo instruments, and sounds almost improvised, so naturally do the ideas flow into one another. Despite this sense, closer examination reveals that the movement is really in sonata form.
Lento moderato - Moderato maestoso
The slow movement opens with an F-major hornsolo above an F-minor chord, a themewhich is developed by a solo cello. Just as in the first movement, the ideas flow gently from one to the next, ultimately leading to the trumpet cadenza. Here the instrument is in effect a natural trumpet(a trumpet without valves) in E♭, since the player is instructed not to use the valves; the result is that the seventh harmonic has its natural, slightly 'out-of-tune' intonation. The entire cadenza is played over a pedal notein the strings. The cadenza material later reappears on the horn, gently accompanied by the movement's opening theme now played on the clarinet. The movement ends with a quiet chord in the violins' high register.
Vaughan Williams described this movement, the symphony's scherzo function, as a "slow dance". The trio, introduced by the brass section, has a quicker, brighter quality but retains some of the heaviness of the earlier music. After the shortened return of the main material there is a remarkable coda - a quiet, mercurial, and very dreamlike passage with some fugal writing, that can almost be described as 'fairy music'. This is the only time truly fast music appears in the symphony. A theme from the main section of the movement creeps into this fugue. The movement ends in a peaceful major chord, all trace of weariness gone.
The final movement begins with a pentatonic recitative for a wordless soprano voice (silent until this point), sung over a soft drumroll. The orchestra then begins an elegiac rhapsody, and the meditative understatement of the preceding three movements is quickly replaced with an impassioned outpouring of feeling. The tensions simmering beneath the surface now break out directly; the high point of the symphony comes when the violins all state the opening soprano melody appassionato. At the very end of the symphony, the soprano returns to sing the music into silence.
A typical performance of the symphony lasts about 35 minutes.