The first time I heard the Fifth Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams, I got angry at it. I can't remember another piece of music leaving me feeling so indignant, so cheated... only to become, in time, a beloved favorite. Such a reversal of heart will be no less remarkable if I add that my enthusiasm for it has mellowed to a quiet but firm respect. Perhaps I owe to this experience my ability not to get angry at a piece of music that I don't quite "get." Or perhaps it only illustrates an ethic that I wish I could share with more music lovers: namely, that the right response to a perplexing musical art-work is to focus your interest on it, to keep cracking at it until it opens itself to you. Such hard-won discoveries have made Brahms's First, Sibelius's Seventh, and this symphony (among others) even more special to me than some pieces that went "click" on the first go.
In spite of my rocky start with this symphony, I did not choose it for this assignment because it is the greatest of Vaughan Williams' nine symphonies, or even because it is one of my all-time favorites; for I assert neither of these things. I chose it, rather, because I think it is the most readily approachable. It may be the best beachhead from which to storm the symphonic island of this interesting composer. Completed in 1943 and dedicated "to Jean Sibelius, without permission," it has a charm that appeals to devotees of the Romantic symphony. And though it pulls back from the nerve-jangling dissonances of its composer's Fourth Symphony, it remains a mature and even experimental work in its way.
The 70-year-old composer based much of this symphony on themes from a then-unfinished opera, The Pilgrim's Progress, having evidently despaired of completing it (though he did so, seven years later). There is also a hint of nostalgia and fare-thee-well in it, hinting that Ralph never dreamed that he would live to write four more symphonies after it. But before you write it off as crass indulgence in backward-looking sentiment, don't forget to ask: "What key is it in?" The official answer is D. Early drafts describe it as being in G. Vaughan Williams himself conceded that he wasn't sure. Parts of it seem to be in two keys at one time.
And that's where it rewards a second read-through, even if you're just reading with your ears. It may sound like "easy listening" at first - like a bit of film soundtrack, perhaps, or a suite of elevator music. What's surprising is partly that there's more to it than that, and partly how it achieves that effect in the first place. For while it comes across as effortlessly easy on the ear, it is at the same time harshly dissonant. How can this be? Answer: through a remarkable layering of tone colors. RVW puts together contrasting choirs of instruments, each playing in a different register. Thus, for example, the low strings may be playing in C Major while the horns float above them in D. Because the colors remain separate, the ear accepts these clashing tonalities as though they belonged together. It's an astonishing trick!
Movement I, a "Praeludio" marked Moderato, begins with a serene dialogue between the horns and violins, floating over a bass drone. Other instruments enter as the conversation becomes more elaborate, the texture thicker, the themes more fully evolved. At first the harmony changes infrequently, but as the density and intensity of the music gradually grows toward a minor climax (around 4 minutes in), so does the variety in its sonorities. At around 4:30, the first significant key change brings with it a sense of unease and of passage from one structural section to another, as it were to a development section.
The texture grows busier in a way that seems cheerful enough, but haunted by darker shadows. Big climax around 6:40 ff, dying away after the 7-minute mark to what a sonata-thinking listener will hear as the beginning of the recapitulation. This passage, however, builds steadily to the highest peak of the movement, a bright glory that cannot fail to impress. Here the thematic ideas seem to find their ultimate fulfillment. The coda begins with the same harmonic gesture that led into the development. These menacing shadows lead, however, to a final return of the serene dialogue from the opening of the movement. It ends in ambiguity, dying away as if peacefully, yet without ever quite reconciling the conflicting tonal forces of C and D major that have divided it since the beginning. The final chord, most unusually, is a long, low, soft D7 chord in last inversion (i.e. with a C in the bass).
Movement II, the Scherzo, is marked Presto misterioso. Beginning softly with strings in octaves, its first gesture is an ascending chain of fourths. These fourths evolve into the accompaniment for the theme announced by the woodwinds. Here is playful, magical music, like a dance of nature spirits, most (but not all) of them benign. Yet at the same time, it is often highly contrapuntal music. Overabundant melody flows through it. In quicksilver succession one spots a few seconds of fugato here, strong rhythms with shifting accents there, moments of lush watercolor vagueness there, and an oboe theme whose sudden, strident appearances in a "wrong" key seem rudely disruptive.
A little before the two-minute mark, a chorale-like theme begins to coalesce. Following this theme, the movement starts over from the opening fourths. At first this seems to herald a varied repetition of the first section. But this has scarcely got under way before it is rudely interrupted by the oboe theme, now sounding even ruder in brass, and at last succeeding in diverting the movement into a contrasting key, rhythm, and thematic episode. This one seems to be skipping downhill, but the skip soon becomes a life-threatening plunge. Then - suddenly - we are flying, or floating. The movement ends with a gentle, final return to the fourths theme.
Movement III's "Romanza" is a very slow (Lento) movement, often excerpted from this symphony because of its breathtaking gorgeousness. Its opening slow, oscillating chord progression sets a scene in the mind's eye. Mine, for example, sees a still, starry night, in which the ensuing English horn solo seems to be the only soul watching. What a lonely watcher! But the strings respond with great tenderness. The flute and oboe, soon joined by other instruments, follow this with overlapping entries of a theme beginning, again, with a stack of fourths. We return to the opening, only with the strings taking over the English horn theme, so that all the world seems to sing it together. The music builds up to a mass dripping with emotion, then thins back again for another go at the fourths theme, played against a variant of the opening oscillation.
As this passage undergoes further development, that variant becomes an increasingly important theme. Twinges of anxiety and pain gather around this idea. Then the oscillation returns in a tremolo guise, underpinning the erstwhile English horn theme, now repatriated to French horns. When the trumpets get into the act, brace yourself for the movement's anguished climax. The oscillating chords come back in the brass, answered by two-part strings moving canonically. It is as if the nighttime watcher had weighed the painfulness of nervous agitation against the lonely tedium of his vigil, and found the latter to be more painful. But once again, consolation follows, perhaps from the answering stars looking back at the watcher and saying, "We are with you." The fourths theme returns again, a bit before the 10-minute mark, sung by the very spirit of vulnerable intimacy, the solo violin. This soloist converses briefly with brief reminiscences of the main themes, before even briefer horn and cello solos dial the movement down to its soft ending.
Movement IV is titled "Passacaglia," though it does not entirely follow through on its advertised plan. A passacaglia, wouldn't you know, is a set of continuous variations on a short musical pattern. The pattern in question is first presented by the basses, and forms the bass line of a couple succeeding variations, joined by the rest of the orchestra. The pattern migrates to other parts of the texture, which grows ever more complex and exciting. Motives from the same pattern are woven into the other parts, adding to the music's density. Note the key change around 3:45, signaling a sort of development section. Here Vaughan Williams plays around with the theme, or parts of it at least, in numerous instrumental and contrapuntal combinations, while shifting from key to key.
At what point Vaughan Williams abandoned the passacaglia pattern is unclear to me. But it's surely somewhat before the six-minute mark, where the opening of the first movement makes a surprise reappearance. A little over a minute later, the passacaglia theme returns in a passage of churchly nobility, like a glowing benediction at the end of the symphony.
Typical of RVW, but atypical of the genre as a whole, this symphony ends softly. In fact, all four movements end softly. But these peaceful closings come across as a just reward after conflict, struggle, and pain. Between them and their equally quiet openings, the inner peaks of each movement's dynamics and musical argument stand out all the more clearly. For example, I once saw a graph of the loudness of the Preludio from beginning to end. It was beautiful to look at, a pattern of exquisite proportions, with an overwhelming sweep from low to high and back again; or rather, three such sweeps in succession, each larger than the one before it. What looked good on a graph sounds even better as music, a testimony to the exquisitely planned and movingly executed dramatic shape of this symphony.