Vaughan Williams Composes His Nine Symphonies

The nine symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams spanned nearly a half century and were instrumental in establishing a school of twentieth century English symphonists.

Summary of Event

In 1903, Ralph Vaughan Williams began work on his First Symphony; First Symphony (Vaughan Williams) his Ninth Symphony, Ninth Symphony (Vaughan Williams) his last, received its premiere in 1958. For more than half a century, he was the principal figure in English music, at first a new voice and at the end the conservator and transmitter of a distinguished symphonic tradition. Music;symphonic
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[kw]Vaughan Williams Composes His Nine Symphonies (1903-1957)
[kw]Symphonies, Vaughan Williams Composes His Nine (1903-1957)
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[g]England;1903-1957: Vaughan Williams Composes His Nine Symphonies[00660]
[c]Music;1903-1957: Vaughan Williams Composes His Nine Symphonies[00660]
Vaughan Williams, Ralph
Whitman, Walt

Vaughan Williams’s first three symphonies form a kind of triptych. Their composer did not number them, but assigned them titles. The first, A Sea Symphony, Sea Symphony, A (Vaughan Williams) was written between 1903 and 1909 and premiered at the Leeds Festival in 1910. The second, A London Symphony, London Symphony, A (Vaughan Williams) written in 1912 and 1913, premiered in 1914 and was revised in 1920 and 1933. The third, Pastoral Symphony, Pastoral Symphony (Vaughan Williams) was completed in 1921 and premiered the following year. The three symphonies depict, respectively, the sea, the city, and the countryside, and they are large-scale works, comparable in their variety and scope to novels by George Eliot or Thomas Hardy.

A Sea Symphony can be called a symphony only in the sense that it has four movements (the third of which is a scherzo) and is a large-scale composition. Innovative American poet Walt Whitman’s free verse, which provided the text for the symphony, does not lend itself well to tuneful settings, and Vaughan Williams set it as a kind of musical prose. The composer eschewed the use of such traditional symphonic structures as sonata form in the outer movements to avoid breaking the continuity of the verse. Whitman’s often overblown and pretentious language is sometimes reflected in the music. The movements are titled, respectively, “A Song for All Seas, All Ships”; “On the Beach at Night, Alone” (the most effective movement); “Scherzo—The Waves,” which can be done independently, without the chorus; and “The Explorers.” Because of the large orchestra specified, the need for organ and chorus, and the length of the work, this is the least frequently performed of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies.

In contrast, A London Symphony is the most popular of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies. Although many musical landscapes and seascapes were written during the Romantic period, such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony (1808) and Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides (1830-1832), urban musical portraits were rare. Frederick Delius’s Paris: The Song of a Great City (1899) was probably the first major musical cityscape.

A London Symphony, which the composer began to sketch in 1912, follows the conventional outline of the four-movement symphony, with the first movement in sonata form and the third movement a scherzo-nocturne depicting London at night. One of the most innovative features of this symphony, and a trait that was to occur in several of Vaughan Williams’s subsequent symphonies, is the epilogue at the end of the marchlike last movement; the epilogue is quiet and repeats the “Westminster Chimes” harp motive of the opening of the symphony. A London Symphony also shows to best advantage Vaughan Williams’s artistic creed of writing music for the people, not for a highly select elite.

Vaughan Williams began to sketch Pastoral Symphony in 1916 in northern France, where he was serving with the British Army during World War I. The work was completed in 1921, and the composer made slight revisions in the early 1950’s. In contrast to his preceding symphonies, it is quiet, contemplative, heavily scored only in the third movement, and characterized by modal melodies harmonized by chord streams. It is often considered a “war requiem,” given that many of the composer’s younger friends were killed in the war. The first movement is in sonata form, the slow movement contains the specification for a natural trumpet (inspired by bugles heard at a distance during wartime), and the third movement corresponds to a scherzo, but the finale is a quietly pensive movement opening and ending with a distant and wordless soprano solo.

The next three symphonies in turn form a triptych. Two modern and dissonant works frame the quiet and contemplative Fifth Symphony; Fifth Symphony (Vaughan Williams) these works were identified by their composer by keys rather than by titles or numbers. Vaughan Williams resented the imposition of programs, and he complained when the mood of his Fourth Symphony Fourth Symphony (Vaughan Williams) was interpreted as rage at the rise of fascism during the 1930’s, or when the bitterness of his Sixth Symphony Sixth Symphony (Vaughan Williams) was seen as a reaction against the optimism of the immediate postwar period.

The Symphony in F Minor, better known as the Fourth Symphony, Fourth Symphony (Vaughan Williams) was begun in 1931 and first performed in 1935. It is surprisingly dissonant and violent to those who know only Vaughan Williams’s earlier symphonies. In many respects, it resembles the Fourth Symphony of Jean Sibelius (a composer whom Vaughan Williams highly esteemed and to whom he dedicated his Fifth Symphony) in its use of concentrated germ motives out of which the symphony is built. Cast in the traditional four movements, the basic germ motives are stated at the opening of the first movement. The bumptious scherzo is connected to the ironic fourth movement, which ends with an epilogue in which the principal germ motive is treated fugally. The symphony then concludes abruptly with statements of the main germ motives. Many commentators have asserted that this is Vaughan Williams’s greatest symphony, although it is not his most popular.

In contrast to the Fourth Symphony, the Fifth Symphony, in D major (begun in 1938 and first performed in 1943), is a serene and contemplative work. Each of the movements bears a title: “Preludio,” “Scherzo,” “Romanza” (the slow movement), and “Passacaglia,” the term for a Baroque form built up on a repeated bass-note pattern. Its mood of affirmation will always be associated with Great Britain during World War II, yet much of it was inspired by John Bunyan’s seventeenth century morality tale The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678); Vaughan Williams worked for thirty years on an operatic setting of Bunyan’s book. One critic has compared the symphonic triptych to Bunyan’s tale, with the Fourth Symphony representing Vanity Fair and the Sixth Symphony the struggle with the demon Apollyon.

The Sixth Symphony, which Vaughan Williams began in 1944 and revised numerous times before its premiere in London in 1948, is his most “modern” symphony, going beyond the Fourth in its use of sharp dissonance. The composer resented application of extramusical connotations such as “war symphony” to the work. It is not a triumphant composition; rather, it is ironic and, in places, even bitter. The four movements of the symphony are linked, with the entire fourth movement an epilogue in which the germ motives of the symphony are transformed into a highly contrapuntal work with a prevailingly soft dynamic level. This symphony received more than a hundred performances within two years of its premiere.

Vaughan Williams’s final three symphonies also form a triptych, reflecting the composer’s interest in film music, which he did not begin to write until 1940. The seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antarctica, Sinfonia Antarctica (Vaughan Williams) was derived from the music that Vaughan Williams wrote for the film Scott of the Antarctic (1948) in 1947 and 1948. Scott of the Antarctic (film) In the following year, he began turning the film score into a symphony, which was completed in 1952 and given its premiere in Manchester in the following year. In five movements, and with a large orchestra that includes organ, wind machine, and women’s chorus, the symphony retains the episodic structure of the film score. In fact, it can more properly be called five programmatic movements for orchestra, each prefaced by a literary quotation, rather than a coherent symphony. The second movement, a scherzo, uses themes that were used in the film to depict whales and penguins; in this and other ways, the work is reminiscent of A Sea Symphony. The wordless vocal solo in the epilogue fifth and final movement is reminiscent of that of Pastoral Symphony. The third movement is the desolate “Landscape,” which culminates in fortissimo organ chords in alternation with the full orchestra.

In contrast with the bleakness of the preceding symphony, the Eighth Symphony Eighth Symphony (Vaughan Williams) of 1956, written when the composer was eighty-three years old, is the most classical in structure and displays a good humor rarely seen in his postwar works. The first movement, “Fantasia,” is subtitled “Variations Without a Theme”; the martial second movement is scored for wind instruments alone; the third movement, “Cavatina,” is scored for strings alone and is one of the composer’s most peacefully expressive works; and the fourth, “Toccata,” makes extensive use of tuned percussion instruments.

The Ninth Symphony, in E minor, was finished late in 1957 and given its premiere four months before the composer’s death at the age of eight-five. Coolly received at its first performance, it is perhaps Vaughan Williams’s most enigmatic symphony. The orchestration is quite unusual, including three saxophones and flügelhorn as well as an enlarged percussion section. It is closest in spirit, freedom of musical structure, and compositional techniques, although less complex, to his Sixth Symphony, and it resembles the earlier work in its abstract nature as well as in its use of an epilogue-like slow finale.


Vaughan Williams established the twentieth century English symphonic tradition at home and abroad. The English composers of symphonies who came after him— including Arnold Bax, Edmund Rubbra, William Alwyn, and Benjamin Britten—had their paths smoothed by the precedent he set. His influence was felt elsewhere in more subtle ways. For example, the American composer Aaron Copland Copland, Aaron compared Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony to looking at a cow for forty-five minutes, yet he used its harmonic devices in his own Appalachian Spring (1944) Appalachian Spring (Copland) and Third Symphony (1946). Third Symphony (Copland) The American composer-educator William Schuman (1910-1992) used some of the structural devices that unify Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony in his own Sixth Symphony in 1949.

Vaughan Williams’s roots were not only in the Anglo-German tradition of Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Edward Elgar, but also in English folk music (he was a longtime member of the English Folk Song and Folk Dance societies and attended their meetings until his eighties). He was also inspired by the traditions of English music of the Renaissance and Baroque music and by the rich tradition of English vernacular church music. His approach was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Through his writing for amateur choirs, brass and wind bands, and school orchestras, he successfully raised the level of musical instruction.

His lifelong credo was that a nation’s musical health is represented best not by its premier musical organizations in the major metropolitan areas but by the general level of music making throughout the country, and he conducted amateur musical groups until the state of his health no longer permitted him to continue. He sought to communicate music not merely to professionals but to unsophisticated performers and listeners as well, and he is one of the few composers of the twentieth century who completely succeeded in this endeavor.

The symphonies of Vaughan Williams, as well as such other orchestral works as Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) for double string orchestra and the music for Job (1930), have their greatest esteem in England, Australia, New Zealand, and the English-speaking nations of North America. Outside these orbits, performances of his symphonies have become infrequent, but his influence on twentieth century music is undeniable. Music;symphonic
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Further Reading

  • Day, James. Vaughan Williams. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Presents the composer as a part of the post-Romantic reactionary movement in the company of composers such as Debussy and Stravinsky. Demonstrates that the circumstances of Vaughan Williams’s life are reflected in his wide-ranging, intense music.
  • Douglas, Roy. Working with Vaughan Williams. London: British Library, 1988. From 1942 until the composer’s death in 1958, Douglas served as Vaughan Williams’s musical amanuensis by fashioning the composer’s difficult-to-read musical manuscripts into proper shape. Through the letters and conversations reproduced in this book, which is enriched with photographs and facsimiles of the composer’s writings, one gets a clear view of Vaughan Williams’s deep humanity.
  • Heffer, Simon. Vaughan Williams. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001. A useful introduction to the composer’s life and work. Also addresses what makes Vaughan Williams’s music both internationally admired and a source of particular pride to the English. Includes bibliography and selected discography.
  • Kennedy, Michael. The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. 2d ed. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A new edition of a book originally published in 1964. Discusses each of Vaughan Williams’s works in depth. Includes critical opinions of the time and presents a comprehensive picture of each major work. Musical knowledge is helpful but not essential for appreciating the insights of the text.
  • Mackerness, Eric D. A Social History of English Music. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964. Provides a highly readable and nontechnical description of the social milieu from which Vaughan Williams’s music came and of the musical life of the country for which it was written.
  • Vaughan Williams, Ralph. The Making of Music. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1955. Collection of lectures presented for a general audience at Cornell University in the fall of 1954 provides an excellent introduction to Vaughan Williams’s musical ideas and philosophy.
  • Vaughan Williams, Ralph, and Gustav Holst. Heirs and Rebels. Edited by Ursula Vaughan Williams and Imogen Holst. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. The correspondence of Vaughan Williams and composer Gustav Holst, good friends from their student days in 1895 to Holst’s death in 1934, edited by the widows of the two composers. Includes some of Vaughan Williams’s early writings on music. Not only records a great musical friendship but also shows how the two composers worked and relied on each other’s advice.
  • Vaughan Williams, Ursula. R. V. W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams. 1964. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. An intimate biography of the composer by his second wife. Makes extensive use of letters and reminiscences by friends and colleagues and presents a vivid portrait of the composer as a person. Especially valuable as a record of his later years.

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