1943: Vaughn Williams: Symphony No. 5 in D major

SATURDAY, December 12, 2020 – 12:01 AM

Symphony No. 5 in D major, age 70

I have a huge soft spot for this symphony and No. 3. Many years ago I was in a store with a huge CD section, and a guy who worked there recommended these two symphonies as “something different”. In general I like hugely dramatic music with lots of emotion, big contrasts, and for me this music is subtle, understated and just different from any other music I’ve heard. In keeping with the idea of trying to find more modern, live recordings, I picked this one for people to be able to watch, and the sound seems very good.


  • two flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons
  • two French horns, two trumpets, three trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

It’s a rather small orchestra by modern standards. Other than piccolo, cor anglais and the trombones this might be the instrumentation of late Haydn.

Sir Andrew Davis

1st movement

Giving conventional keys to music this modern is actually pointless. It does start out with a D major chord in the horns, but immediately he moves to a pentatonic scale: F G A C D, and it’s not clear if the tonal center is D minor or F major, and from that point conventional keys go right out the window. It’s much better to just enjoy the music. His world is very different from that of Debussy and Ravel, but there are also similarities between his tonal language and that of the Impressionists. One huge similarity is the use of modes.

The first part of this movement is very peaceful, very quiet and rather slow, but about six minutes in there is something increasingly turbulent and even menacing. At that point the music speeds up, not so much in tempo but in the number notes per measure, which creates the feeling of acceleration. This would conform to what would normally be a development section, and that’s where the music heats up. Then there is a gradual relaxation, and the opening horn chord comes back. That signals a kind of recap. At the very end that horn chord comes back, but there is also something almost like an Fm7 chord, and if you put both these chords together you get something rather complex, mysterious and ambiguous. That’s how the movement ends. And in fact, before the ending there is something that sounds more like G major, but with a Mixolydian feel.

The point is that saying the movement is in D major is really highly misleading.

2nd movement

This is no scherzo in the traditional sense. At the beginning it’s not clearly in 3/4 time, and here and there are extra beats, something almost not heard until the late 1800s and early 1900s. But it does have a light, playful feel. In general this movement is extremely interesting rhythmically, but there are certainly other things to listen to and be fascinated by. For me a lot of this movement is ethereal, almost magical.

3rd movement

It is not clear why the composer called this “Romanza”, but perhaps that word had special emotional or spiritual significance. Rather than sounding like something “romantic”, there is a feeling of seriousness and contemplation, perhaps almost like something you might use for meditation.

4th movement

A “passacaglia” is a repetitive bass line, but very little of this movement is about such a thing because there is so much more to it. In fact, the last movement is surprisingly long, at around 13 minutes. If all the movements were that long it would be a rather long symphony. There are many moods and many changes. At the end there is a return to the theme of the 1st movement, binding the whole symphony together.


Vaughan Williams dedicated the symphony to Jean Sibelius and says:

“Dedicated without permission to Jean Sibelius”.

After listening to a broadcast of the work, Sibelius wrote:

“I heard Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ new Symphony from Stockholm under the excellent leadership of Malcolm Sargent … This Symphony is a marvelous work … the dedication made me feel proud and grateful … I wonder if Dr. Williams has any idea of the pleasure he has given me?”

Premieres and publication

The Fifth Symphony was premiered on 24 June 1943 at a Prom concert in the Royal Albert Hall, London, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. The American premiere was given in Carnegie Hall on 30 November 1944 by the New York Philharmonic under Artur Rodziński.

The score of the symphony was published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 1946. Vaughan Williams lightly revised the score in 1951, but that revision was not published during his lifetime. It was published in 1961.


In a survey of Vaughan Williams’s nine symphonies, Elliott Schwartz writes:

When the Symphony in D major was first performed in 1943, it was instantly acclaimed by the listening public. Its success resulted from many factors, most notably the serenity of the work itself as contrasted with the severity of the war then in progress, as well as the allusions to The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The response of music critics was generally enthusiastic.

3 thoughts on “1943: Vaughn Williams: Symphony No. 5 in D major

  1. Your link was not available here, but I found one with Vaughn Williams himself conducting. Very enjoyable. I want to listen to it again, more than once. I have a feeling each time there will be more to discover.

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