Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Ralph Vaughan Williams

by tacet


At its premiere in 1935, the 4th Symphony came as a shock to its listeners. The composer, by then over 60, had long been known as a leading figure of the English pastoral and folk revival school; he was also a musical programmist, whose first three symphonies evoked specific subjects (the sea, the city, and the countryside, respectively). But in the 4th Symphony, he broke with his previous approach by composing one of the tightest, most vehement and dissonant symphonies of the century, in an abstract form that lacked any programmatic intent.

With this work, Vaughan Williams stepped briefly into the ranks of the neoclassicists. This trend – principally associated with such European modernist masters as Stravinsky and Hindemith – involved the revival of the classical forms and procedures of Haydn, Beethoven, and other 18th-century composers, rejuvenated by the more dissonant language of the 20th century. None of its major adherents began their careers as neoclassicists: rather, they arrived at it after making their names with other (often quite radical) styles. Thus, neoclassicism is often reactionary in form and radical (or at least modernistic) in content.

It is in fact the form of Beethoven, if not quite his spirit, that is followed most closely here. Vaughan Williams’ structure reflects that of Beethoven’s 5th so closely that it almost sounds like a parody of its model. This is evident in such things as the brusque four-note motives that provide the basic thematic material for the symphony, and the ominous connecting passage from scherzo to finale. The relations of the movements in regard to form, duration and tempo are also remarkably similar. Both symphonies contain extended codas that work out the musical material exhaustively, but while Beethoven’s coda is an exhilarating rush to a triumphant finish, Vaughan Williams’ is a fugue that seems to rage in a confined space.

The overall impression of the symphony, then, is not one of progress toward a goal, but rather an abstract image of tightly channeled power and tension. If, as Goethe said, “architecture is frozen music,” then the 4th Symphony is a Bauhaus skyscraper, a sonic counterpart to those soaring, forbidding glass-and-steel structures. Some early listeners related the harshness of the music to the political state in Europe in the 1930s. The composer himself rejected any symbolic or programmatic meaning, and brushed away such claims with dismissive comments (“I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external… but simply because it occurred to me like this”). What the composer meant – if anything – is likely to be a matter of each listener’s personal interpretation.

Below is a recording of Symphony No. 4 in F Minor followed by a brief listening guide.

I. A powerful dissonance erupts from the orchestra; two four-note ideas arise from it, at 0:07 and 0:11 respectively. (The first motif is a transposed version of the BACH theme: B flat, A, C, B, here starting on D flat.) The hostilities continue with a high-strung, lamenting theme on the violins (1:00), followed by a menacing marching episode on horns (2:15), repeated by screaming trumpets to ratchet up the drama still further. The high level of volume and tension slackens for the first time at 3:32, only to build up again towards a shattering climax (4:21) and a recapitulation of the main material. Finally, the thunderous orchestral engine runs out of steam, and the music slips into an icy, exhausted coda (5:45).

II. The glacial mood continues as the slow movement begins (8:06). With its treading bass, aria-like main melody, and multiple woodwind solos, this austere movement sounds more baroque than classical. It divides neatly into two halves, with the break marked by a bassoon solo at 12:15. On two occasions (from 10:43 and 12:45, respectively) the icy calm is torn by orchestral eruptions, after which woodwind solos soothe the music back to its initial mood. A lonely flute solo (15:30) brings the music to a subdued close.

III. The scherzo brings back the pounding energy of the first movement (16:41). The opening four-note figures are prominent here, providing much of the rhythmic underpinning. The lumbering trio, a fine example of fugal counterpoint, gets under way at 18:57. The main scherzo material comes back (19:52), but instead of a coda, we hear a rumbling, murmuring bridge passage from 20:56, which builds up a great head of steam, until it emerges into…

IV. …the finale (21:39), announced by three crashing chords. This develops frenetically, into a kind of nightmarish military march. The second subject (22:43), brighter and less strident, comes in on violins. In a sudden strange turn, the music begins to run out of energy (23:35), like a dying battery. The first movement coda returns (24:12), like an interval of desolate sleep between episodes of frantic activity. This, however, soon gives way to an increase in tension, which rushes into the recapitulation (25:40). After further development, a loud declamation of the opening BACH theme transposition (27:04) announces the fugal coda, which sustains the high level of volume and stridency all the way to the end.

The linked recording is the one led by the composer himself, made only two years after the premiere. Of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, the 4th is the one that has proved most popular with non-British conductors, and there are noteworthy recordings by such figures as Bernstein, Mitropolous and Haitink. A personal favorite is Paavo Berglund’s: a swift and forceful version that strongly brings out the neo-classical aspects of the score. Other manifestations of Vaughan Williams’ dissonant, vehement side include his Piano Concerto (which also exists in a two-piano version), parts of the ballet Job, and the 6th Symphony.

The middle of the century brought forth a wonderful crop of neo-classical symphonies. Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Hindemith’s Symphony in E Flat, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 are good pieces to explore next. An overlooked gem in the style is Harold Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra of 1948.

Artwork: Job’s Evil Dreams, William Blake

by Scott Spires

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