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Composed: 1956

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd=piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, side drum, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone, tuned gongs), 2 harps, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 11, 1959, John Barbirolli conducting

About this Piece

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s homespun but wholly commendable guiding principle was that “a composer’s art should be an expression of the whole life of the community.” Clearly, he also believed that the community’s life is rooted in its past—because, for the basis of his art, he made a beeline for the long, communal traditions of English folk song and the music of 16th-century composers.

This was no dewy-eyed fancy. A rising generation of red-blooded English composers, men such as Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, George Butterworth, Ernest Moeran, and John Ireland had a common strategy to start again, from identifiably indigenous English music that predated the rise of the then-dominant German influence. Such composers were classed as “English Pastoralists.” Through many wonderful works—such as his mystical Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), idyllic The Lark Ascending (1914-20), and ruddy-cheeked English Folk Song Suite (1923)—VW emerged as a leading light.

Over the years, VW suffered a few barbs that symptomized a feeling, amongst the increasingly influential postwar “progressives,” that pastoralism had led English music up a blind alley, isolating it from the musical mainstream. For this reason, I like to think of the Eighth Symphony (1953-55) as “An English Artist’s Reply to Unjust Criticism.” Although it must have hurt him, VW, seemingly serenely indifferent to his detractors, carried on his merry way and produced a radiant, vibrant celebration of pastoralism.

A private run-through (1955) provoked some consternation—and, from a friendly critic, a question. Wryly, VW replied, “I feel the thing is a symphony, and it is going to remain one.” Apparently, the naughty VW had contravened standing orders, deciding against sonata form for his first movement. In fact, all four movements seem to avoid conventional symphonic forms.

I. Fantasia (Variations without a theme). The opening four-note trumpet motive, immediately clothed in exotic percussion colors, may be more a motive than a definite melody, but it is nevertheless the theme. Venturing far and wide, VW proceeds both to work it like plasticine—bending and stretching, squashing and twisting it—or using it as a skeleton to support other material. This tour de force of the composer’s art is closed neatly by the return of the “indefinite theme.”

The remaining movements spotlight, in turn, the orchestra’s wind sections, bowed strings, and percussion.

II. Scherzo alla marcia (for wind instruments). A woodwind “clog-dance,” twisting and turning on the village green, is soon superseded by a cheery trumpet tune—the archetypal brass band, tiddly-om-pom-pomming its jolly way along the prom-prom-prom. But then VW, maybe mindful of that missing sonata, sidesteps any regulation repeats and instead treats his themes to a roller-coaster ride of lively—and largely fugal—development!

The Trio’s lilting tune comes within an imperial inch of quoting from his Sixth Symphony (the melody later popularized by the TV drama, A Family at War). Thence, without further ado, straight into the coda, in whose final frayed phrase VW seems to say, “And that’ll be enough of that.”

III. Cavatina (for stringed instruments). VW’s continually evolving movement corresponds closely to the original meaning—an operatic aria in one section and without any repetition of words or phrases. These induce various passions: surges of love, nostalgia, perhaps regret, maybe even umbrage. We can picture VW, musing by the fireside, “Surely, what I’ve done isn’t all that bad, is it?”

IV. Toccata. In the finale, he answers his own question—“No, it jolly well isn’t!”—and leaves no stop unpulled in proving his point. Far from gratuitous, though, the lavish instrumentation (including tubular bells, xylophone, celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and three tuned gongs) is brilliantly integrated with the thematic materials, to echo the celebratory clangor of church bells—which is a universally recognized connotation!

–Paul Serotsky, ©2009 Edited and used with permission