Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.4


Composed in 1935, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony is one of his most dissonant and dramatic. The work was dedicated to fellow composer, Arnold Bax. Many think of Vaughan Williams as a ‘pastoral’ composer, with his works oozing modality, melodic excitement and English folk tunes. However, this only covers a portion of his works. Compositions such as the Fourth and Eighth symphonies have far more loudness and dissonance rooted in them. 

Although a stark contrast to Vaughan Williams’ ‘usual’ style, the Fourth Symphony is one his most-performed, even today. The composer always insisted that this work is ‘pure music’, which is why he didn’t use a title for the work, unlike previous symphonies. He described the opening as “cribbed from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth.” He also said this about the Fourth:


“It looks wrong and it sounds wrong, but it’s right. I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant.”


The premiere of the symphony was a hit between Vaughan Williams’ contemporaries, William Walton, Arthur Benjamin and Arnold Bax:


“I met Willy Walton on the way to the Hall and he said – having been to rehearsals – that we were going to hear the greatest symphony since Beethoven. Arnold, too, agreed.”


The premiere took place on 10th April 1935, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Adrian Boult. Two years later the work had its first recording, which featured Vaughan Williams conducting. This proved to be the only commercial recording of any of his symphonies.


The Music

The symphony is in four movements, with the third and fourth linking together. A typical performance of the symphony will be between 30-35 minutes.


Movement I – Allegro

The symphony states the first theme immediately with a grinding dissonance from the whole orchestra. The whole orchestra is marked ff on the semitone shifts from Db and C. This is then repeated an octave lower. The brass add to the drama and intensity of this theme, with the shrill upper winds adding to the unusual timbre created by Vaughan Williams.

From this roaring opening comes the 4-note motif that is then used and developed throughout the whole symphony. This theme is comprised of two semitones separated by a minor third. The opening statement uses the notes Db-C-Eb-D. This theme is developed from this movement onwards and then crops up unexpectedly in other movements.

The music keeps the pace moving, but the strings now take a bulk of the work by playing a much more Romantically-fuelled melody. High in intensity, the opening movement will take you on a tumultuous journey.


Movement II – Andante moderato

Opening with muted brass and flutes, the cellos and basses start to use pizzicato to pluck the plodding bassline out. The upper strings then play a slow aria-like melody that is derived from material from the first movement. The music swells together, however the atmosphere is perhaps one of the most interesting elements of this movement. Slow in tempo and experimental in dissonance, Vaughan Williams’ orchestration in this movement shines through.


Movement III – Scherzo: Allegro molto

Scherzo, meaning ‘joke’, is exactly what we get in this third movement. Up until this point we have had a rush of serious music thrown at us and developed over the course of two movements. This third movement shows us the four-note motif in a lively, but grotesque way. The movement has been described as “a fun-house mirror of the main themes.”

Vaughan Williams utilises the brass to add to the comedic nature of the work. Although, the comedy may perhaps be viewed as irony, similarly to the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony. You can clearly hear the four-note motif threaded throughout this movement. There is also an exciting fugal element to this movement, which fast scalic runs and counter-melodies integrating with one another.


Movement IV – Finale con epilogo fugato: Allegro molto

The start of this movement explodes in colour after the end of the slightly terrifying third movement. Off-beat movement from the heavy brass make way for the trumpets, upper winds and strings to lay out the first theme. The orchestra is in constant complex dialogue throughout this movement, with themes bouncing around different instruments. 

A quieter section ensues, with the foreboding heavy brass chugging underneath with off-beats. This leads to a must more pastoral interlude, where Vaughan Williams utilises the strings. The modal air to this interlude creates a sense of calm and and serenity to a very intense symphony thus far.

This does not last long, however, as the orchestra explodes back into furious counterpoint as the themes are being built back up. This movement is by far the most complex and this is evident through the opposing themes being intertwined in an experimental way. The loudness of the first movement returns as the brass burst into a rapturous fanfare that leads to the material heard in the opening few bars of the symphony. The work ends with five repeated chords before a tumultuous thud from the orchestra at the end.



Final Thoughts

Although not perhaps what you would expect from Vaughan Williams, his Fourth Symphony packs a real punch. From the clever orchestration and timbres, to the experimentation with dissonance and tonality, the Fourth is a force to be reckoned with. The question is…how many times could you hear the iconic four-note motif throughout the symphony?


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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