Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Symphony Guide on Ralph Vaughan Williams

Tom Service of the Guardian performs another worthy service for us in today's symphony guide by introducing the Symphony No. 3 of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I am shocked to say that if I have ever listened to a symphony by Vaughan Williams I have forgotten it! When I was a young musician, people like Vaughan Williams and Elgar were the uncoolest of the uncool. They were working in an obviously obsolescent medium, tonality, and plus, as a Canadian, I resented the British influence on Canadian culture. I have this little joke that I made up about being Canadian. The original plan was for Canada, largely influenced by Great Britain, France and the US, to have British government, American know-how and French culture. Instead we ended up with French government, British know-how and American culture!

So it is with unexpected pleasure that I listen to this lovely and gentle symphony that, as Tom points out, is a bittersweet memoir of the First World War. That war was horrific for the British as so many of their best and brightest lost their lives in the trenches. Among the officer corps the casualty rate was approaching 90%. For a good sense of what it was like, read Robert Graves' autobiography Goodbye to All That.

Tom gives us an adequate introduction but falls prey to his usual failing of setting up a straw man that he can vigorously attack for most of the essay instead of getting to the actual music. In this case it is the nickname Vaughan Williams himself gave to the symphony: "Pastoral". Tom just can't stop chewing over how misleading this is:
It’s easy to see where the confusion comes from: here is that master of nostalgic evocation calling a piece “pastoral”, immediately asking audiences to hear it – you’d have thought – as the acme of all things quaintly, gently rustic, the sound of an imagined idyll of English landscape turned into sound.
So perhaps the symphony’s mixed reception is partly Vaughan Williams’s own fault: had he originally called it simply Symphony No 3, he wouldn’t have planted that pastoral seed in the minds of his listeners and his critics. Constant Lambert said that its four movements – nearly all of them slow, lyrical, and strange – have a “particular type of grey, reflective, English-landscape mood [that] outweighed the exigencies of symphonic form”.
But it’s not just Vaughan Williams’s testimony that should make us realise that the landscape of A Pastoral Symphony isn’t some Arcadian part of Surrey – if it is about landscape at all, it’s rather the blasted terrain of the fields of horror of the first world war.
In this essay Tom's approach seems to have been dictated by the views of Constant Lambert and Daniel Grimley. I kind of wish that occasionally he would just listen to the music and talk about that. Then we might get more than just a brief mention of the trumpet solo in the second movement and the offstage soprano in the last. One thing he does not mention is the influence of English folk song on the melodic idioms (such as that soprano solo) and the English jig on the coda to the third movement.

But I am grateful for the introduction nonetheless. Lots of lovely music here and the orchestration has that particular English freshness without any Teutonic heaviness. Let's have a listen:


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