1922: Vaughn Williams: Symphony No. 3 in G major

MONDAY, December 7, 2020 – 11:13 AM

Vaughn Williams: Symphony No. 3 in G major, age 50

Instrumentation:

  • 3 flutes (3rd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets (in Bb and A; 3rd doubling on bass clarinet), 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns (in F), 3 trumpets (in C, 1 doubling on natural trumpet in E♭), 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, celesta, harp, and strings, plus a wordless soprano in the 4th movement.

The symphony is in four movements:

1st movement

The idea of a key, or assigning key, is almost pointless. By 1922 even relatively conservative composers like Vaughn Williams were thoroughly familiar with composers such as Debussy and Ravel, and for the most part Romanticism was a thing of the past. When listening this symphony I’ve always heard a film score about native Americans. This has nothing to do with what the music is about, but I always get that feeling, perhaps because of the tonal language. This is actually a reflection of war, what happened during WWII. His inspiration to write his Symphony No. 3 came from his war experiences. The movement is roughly related to G major but ends on G B C#, with a tritone, and that effect is mysterious, ambiguous and mildly unsettling.

2nd movement

This opens with an horn solo in F major above an F minor chord, so immediately there is conflict, though gentle. Later a trumpet plays an F major solo on a natural instrument with  no valves. You can actually do this on a modern Bb trumpet by using only valves 1 and 3 and then tuning the 3rd valve slide out. To hit Eb on F trumpet that 7th will be very flat. He wanted that sound to mimic a bugler hitting that note by accident. Still later F horn plays the same theme the same way. The feel centers around F minor, and there is a suggestion of that at the end, with only F and Ab way up high in the strings, very quiet.

3rd movement

Vaughan Williams described this movement as a “slow dance”. The trio, mostly the brass section, has a quicker, brighter quality for contrast. The only time truly fast music appears in the symphony is in this movement. The movement starts in G minor but spends some time in G major and ends on a G major chord.

4th movement

It begins with a pentatonic passage for a wordless soprano voice (silent until this point), sung over a soft drumroll. The tonal center is A, so the feel is of an A natural minor scale. At the very end of the symphony, the soprano returns to sing the same theme, again using A minor and pentatonic.

Vaughan Williams in WWI…

He was aged 41 when World War I began, and that war had a lasting emotional effect on him. He served in France and Salonika. Prolonged exposure to gunfire caused ear damage that eventually lead  to severe deafness towards the end of his life.

A good human being…

There have been so many narcissistic composers who have written brilliant music but who seemed to care little about other human beings, and of course there have been many fine human beings who were never more than mediocre composers, but Vaughn Williams, who might have been known as  “just a good man” if he had not been a musical genius, was a late bloomer who eventually gained the recognition of the whole world.

He did not really find his own voice until his late thirties. Eventually he became one of the best-known British composers, noted for his emotional range as well as his unique voice.

Early life…

In 1878, at the age of five, Vaughan Williams began receiving piano lessons from his aunt. He also studied violin and  collected traditional folk songs from an early age. They went on to inspire much of his later music. In 1880, when he was eight, he took a correspondence course in music from Edinburgh University and passed. To me that means that he worked mostly on his own. He got help, but not the kind of help you would think such a talented young boy would normally get.

In September 1883 he went as a boarder to Field a preparatory school in Rottingdean on the south coast of England. In 1888 he organized a concert in the school hall, which included a performance of his G major Piano Trio (now lost) with the composer as violinist.

At the Royal College of Music…

Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music in London where Gustav Holst and Leopold Stokowski were fellow students. He also spent a short time studying in Berlin with Max Bruch. He and Holst (“The Planets”) were soon best friends and remained so until Holst’s death in 1934.

A religious background…

His father, Arthur, was the vicar of All Saints church in Down Ampney but died when Ralph was less than three years old, and he went on to first become an atheist and later a gentle agnostic. Yet Vaughan Williams edited The English Hymnal in 1904 and composed some fine Christian choral music.

A committed liberal…

The composer came from a privileged background, but he  worked all his life for for progressive causes and found small-mindedness puzzling. He viewed music as being for everyone rather than for just the elite.

Vaughan Williams was a student of Ravel…

He studied orchestration in Paris with Ravel, which lead indirectly to a great output of some of his best music. A Sea Symphony and the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis were composed in 1910. 

He never stopped composing…

In 1943 he conducted the premiere of his Symphony No.5 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, dedicated to Sibelius. He was already 70, so many assumed this would be his last major work, but he went on to write, among other things, four more symphonies.

Final days…

Vaughan Williams was still composing great music into his 80s. At the age of 85, he was set to supervise the first recording of his Ninth Symphony with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. But his death on 26 August 1958, the night before the recording sessions were to begin, prompted the conductor to announce to the musicians that their performance would be a memorial to the composer.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ popularity increases…

the popularity of Vaughan Williams has grown steadily each year with The Lark Ascending often topping the annual Hall of Fame poll from 2007 onward.

2 thoughts on “1922: Vaughn Williams: Symphony No. 3 in G major

  1. The sound of Williams is “different” from much of the music I heard. So far I have only known him for the sound of his music, and a first name with way too many letters. It is interesting to read about him, his life, and get more insights into what’s behind the music. The info about the 2nd movement is fascinating.

  2. The title and music gave me a feeling of peacefulness and quiet contemplation. I was quite surprised to learn that this is actually about a time of war.

    “Vaughan Williams emphasized, however, that the work is “not really Lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted”[5] (i.e., English pastoral scenery); its reference is to the fields of France during World War I, where the composer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps.”

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