Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony Number Five

Ralph Vaughan Williams, descended from the famous Wedgwood and Darwin families,
was born at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire in 1872. In 1890 he entered the Royal
College of Music, and in 1892 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. One of the
greatest of the British composers, a prolific writer of music, folksong
collector, and champion of British cultural heritage, he died aged 85 in 1958.
His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey alongside the nation\'s greatest
artists and poets. Symphony No. 5 in D


The symphony contains a lot of material from RVW\'s then unfinished opera, The
Pilgrim\'s Progress. When he began the Fifth Symphony, RVW thought he may never
finish the opera, and didn\'t want to waste any good ideas. The symphony does not
have a programme, it is absolute music. It is in four movements: a "Preludio"
first movement, a Scherzo, a "Romanza" slow movement, and a "Passacaglia" finale.

First Movement : Preludio

From the very beginning, RVW puts the key signature of this movement into doubt.
The movement opens with a horn call in D, set against a firm base (or bass?) of
octave C\'s. Could it be that in the great traditions of British musical
\'amateurism\', RVW got his transposition wrong? Or is this a deliberate feature
of the music, intended to blur the tonality? Musicologists prefer the latter
explanation. This is by no means an unusual feature of his music, when he was
asked what the 4th symphony was about, RVW replied "It is about F-minor",
alluding to his sometimes hazy tonalities, often augmented by his use of modal,
mainly pentatonic melodies, which, with no leading note, often help to \'fudge\'
the tonality. Apart from the horn call, the brass is seldom used, and the
texture is light and airy. The first violins then enter, high on the E string,
doubled at the octave below by the seconds in an introduction, before their main
theme at (1), doubled by flutes. The triplets add rhythmic variety, as well as
providing a distinctly \'folkie\' feel. During the course of the movement, the
distinctive dotted rhythm of the horns hardly ever leaves us. There are some
rather abrupt key changes. i.e. Eb to E at (5). We are taken into the Allegro by
a sudden change in mood. The music darkens with a slightly sinister version of
the horn call in the bassoons. We then enter the Allegro, with a scurrying in
the strings, whilst the wind begins a downward progression of notes, which
builds to a climax, with strings in semiquavers, until we reach the original
tempo once more, as the music winds down, back to the horn call. Some
development of ideas takes place, before the music once again winds down. The
horn calls are answered by single notes in woodwind, and the movement ends as
mysteriously as it began - the horns fade into the distance, in the key of D,
but we are left, somewhat perturbed by the pianissimo cello C against the viola

The movement is plainly 20th century, with many dissonances, yet the movement,
for the most part, sounds serene, with a sinister undertone that barely breaks
the surface. Much of this softening comes from RVW\'s orchestration: he tends to
work in distinct "chunks" of sound. In the opening measures, for example, the
low cellos and basses are separated from the higher horns in range and sound

Second Movement : Scherzo

The movement starts with rising string fourths, which seem to come from nowhere.
This time, it is the time signature of the movement that we must look out for.
The piece starts in dotted minims, but then the note values become minims,
before the seventh bar, in which a rather jaunty tune begins, and continues
through a rather melancholy unison entry by flute and bassoon., which is
continued in woodwind, until we reach a short staccato section, just before (2),
where there is a rather absurd quaver dialogue between woodwind and strings.
More staccato work from strings leads to a rather fat sounding appoggiated
dotted minim passage for oboe and cor anglais. Here we get passages of two
against three, in the tune. After the double bar after (14), we get that nimble
staccato passage back, this time pianissimo, it all has a rather tongue - in -
cheek feel to it, accentuated by the slightly heavy bass. The strings endure
another scurrying passage, then after (17), a new, almost fatalistic downwards
theme is introduced, which gradually gains in intensity, until it is eventually
played tutti. The first theme, with its rising