Claude Monet (1840 – 1926): Port of London (1871)
The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) wrote nine symphonies over his lifetime beginning with the choral-orchestral Sea Symphony of 1910, a setting of Walt Whitman’s maritime verse, and ending with the Symphony in E-Minor of 1957. Vaughan Williams eschewed a numbering system, designating his symphonic scores, which form the trunk of his compositional achievement, only by title or key signature. As follow-ups to his Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams produced A London Symphony (first version 1914; final revision, 1936) and A Pastoral Symphony (1921), both of which exhibit programmatic qualities although their author downplayed these, as have subsequent commentators. The original version of A London Symphony had its first performance under Geoffrey Toye in its namesake city in March 1914, and A Pastoral Symphony, also in London, in January 1922 under Adrian Boult. The next three symphonies (F-Minor, D-Major, and E-Minor) lacked titles, but the seventh, which drew on a film-score that the composer had written in 1947, he called Sinfonia Antartica. The composer completed Sinfonia Antartica, after several years of revision, in 1952. John Barbirolli then conducted the premiere in January 1953 with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. The final symphony, sharing its key-signature (E-Minor) with the sixth, has literary roots in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). It depicts a characteristic topography, in this case the Salisbury Plain, as do A London Symphony, A Pastoral Symphony, and Sinfonia Antartica theirs – but it remains untitled. In fact, A London Symphony also takes inspiration, at least in part, from a literary source – the epilogue to H. G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay, a novel that saw publication in 1906. Although professedly an agnostic, Vaughan Williams (hereafter RVW) in his works, including the symphonies, repeatedly and almost obsessively approached the topic, in all its aspects, of transcendence.
Claude Monet (1840 – 1926): Houses of Parliament (1904)
The two most penetrating treatments of RVW and his oeuvre – Wilfrid Mellers’ book Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion (1989) and Tony Palmer’s film-documentary O Thou Transcendent (2008) – affirm the paradox of a William-Blake type of mystic who led the life, other than as an artist, of a conventional non-believer, but who, in his art, sought the many moods of visionary exaltation and invited his audience to share in these with him. Mellers goes so far as to refer to RVW as a “Double Man.” Mellers writes, “If Vaughan Williams was double in being a Christian agnostic, he was double too in being by birth a countryman from rural Gloucestershire, but by nurture a Londoner, a man of the city.” Each of the three RVW symphonies that this essay will discuss, the ones after A Sea Symphony that bear titles, addresses musically the problem of transcendence in the context of modernity or of the beatific prospect in a world spiritually blinded by its self-indulgent crassness. In the succession of history, modernity emerges as a materialistic hence crass and non- or anti-spiritual regime, at first peculiar to Western Europe but later global, that denies the existence of transcendence and regards with disdain those who maintain the concept, which tendency steadily increases from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Century. As one of the interviewees in Palmer’s film says, RVW might not have believed in the conventional God, but he certainly yearned for and possibly even glimpsed (or maybe it is the other way around) a luminous and healing realm beyond this mortal and disappointing coil. In a precursor score to A Sea Symphony, Toward the Unknown Region (1907), RVW had set another Whitman text: “Darest thou now O soul, / Walk out with me toward the unknown region, / Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?”
A LONDON SYMPHONY. In almost everything he composed, RVW struck out along Whitman’s pathless way, but Wells, not Whitman, supplies the immediate literary source for A London Symphony. RVW’s love for London, his sense of the city’s history, and his sympathy for the many tragedies that life in an industrialized metropolis entails furnish the basic impulse behind his “Symphony by a Londoner.” His familiarity with Tono-Bungay, and not merely its lyric epilogue, might however have sharpened his perception of and emotive response to the riverine mother-city of the British Empire. Tono-Bungay, typically for Wells, defies any easy plot-summary; it even defeats generic assignment. Tono-Bungay, which takes its title from a useless patent medicine from the sale of which the protagonist becomes wealthy and rises through the social classes, combines comedy, satire, and elements of the tragic – but it is, in part, a novel about London. A London Symphony likewise defies any facile précis and makes generic classification difficult. To a first-time listener it can seem sprawling and something of a mélange – an expanded tone poem, perhaps, or national rhapsody and yet serious in a manner that items by George Enescu and Hugo Alfvén cannot match. Also – complex. RVW organizes each of the four movements around a stock of motifs, some of which resurface in other sections so as to create a pattern of memorious cross-references. The sequence is: (1) Lento – Allegro risoluto; (2) Lento; (3) Scherzo (Nocturne); (4) Andante con moto – Maestoso alla marcia – Allegro – Lento – Epilogue. The emotional tone ranges from the gaiety of a busker or music-hall performance to a poignant funereal sadness and from the good spirit of a crowd to the desertion of urban solitude. RVW hints at but never actually quotes in full any traditional melody.
Some details from Tono-Bungay will serve to introduce a discussion of RVW’s symphony. Readers of Tono-Bungay see London through the eyes of the protagonist, George Ponderevo, a fatherless child who has grown up in a down-on-its-luck countryside manor house where his mother serves as a maid to impoverished third-order aristocrats. He first sees London when he travels there in his early twenties to visit his uncle, with whom before a financial imbroglio he had served as a pharmacological apprentice in a village. Approaching the conurbation by rail, George sees on the outskirts “big factories, gasometers and wide reeking swamps of dingy little homes, more of them and more and more.” He remarks on the “dinginess” and “poverty” of the clustered domiciles: “The congestion of houses intensified and piled up presently into tenements; I marveled more and more at this boundless world of dingy people; whiffs of industrial smell, of leather, of brewing, drifted into the carriage; the sky darkened, I rumbled thunderously over bridges, van-crowded streets, peered down on and crossed the Thames with an abrupt eclat of sound.” Later in life, residing in London, George’s awareness of the city’s aesthetic aspect – its architecture and parklands – takes life. It is in the novel’s epilogue, however, to which every commentary on A London Symphony alludes, where George’s impression of the metropolis attains to the sublime. George remarks how, while gliding down the Thames in the sleek torpedo boat he has built for a foreign government, “the panorama of London is beyond all law, order, and precedence; it is the seaport and the sea.” It amounts to an “unassimilable enormity of traffic.” In these passages, Wells’ prose graduates to an upper echelon of pitched intensity.
Claude Monet (1840 – 1926): Thames below Westminster (1871)
What the literary mind notices in Tono-Bungay, the musicological mind notices in A London Symphony – the sublimation of what might otherwise seem trivial or banal so that, in the context of the unfolding score, all the details achieve their formation in the transcendent context of the whole. Mellers writes of the introductory Lento of the first movement, taken by some to represent the deep currents of the Thames and thus of Nature, how they form “a seed of creation,” setting in their intervals a “pentatonic pattern” from which the music will grow. Culture appears with an imitation of the Westminster Chimes. “The juxtaposition of London and Nature, is the point,” Mellers writes, “a harbinger of what is to be the central theme of Vaughan Williams’s life’s work,” namely that man and city evolved from Nature and remain in tension with it, the city transcending man historically while mortality drags the individual back into the loam from which he stems. Of the same introduction, James day writes in Vaughan Williams (1998), “The work begins with a phrase based on a rising fourth, which works its way upwards into a shadowy tune over the chimes of Big Ben, eventually dissolving into a kind of trill, as if the sun were rising out of the mist over the gently flowing Thames.” The Allegro risoluto now supervenes, with RVW producing a variety of lively motifs that combine and counterpoint one another to illustrate what Wells calls “the enormity of traffic.” Woodwinds and brass take prominence; echoes of Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture (1901) and forecasts of John Ireland’s London Overture (1936) resound raucously, with a hefty measure of rhythmic verve. The movement ends with the resurgence of the “Thames” motif, which will return again in the finale’s epilogue.
The slow-movement, marked Lento, follows the street-bustle of the first movement’s Allegro risoluto. The string section plays an elegiac tune, modally flavored. Solo instruments take up the dirge like melody – oboe and French horn. The atmosphere is darkly colored, as though to portray the sorrow of the “dinginess” and “poverty” that the Wellsian protagonist sees on his first visit to London. The solo viola enters with a new but obviously related tune, which, when passed to the flute becomes pastoral rather than urban; it even takes on a slightly dancelike character, with rhythmic accompaniment on a castanet. The movement now moves to its climax, scored for full orchestra, with the brass section prominent, swelling in a type of hymnody. The opening returns. The effect is disturbing. Mellers describes it as “phantasmagoric.” Day identifies the viola’s melody with “the lavender seller’s cry,” an element of street commerce in the pre-war London economy; he writes that “the movement finally fades as if in the autumn twilight.” RVW conceived his scherzo as a “nocturne,” a possible allusion to Frederick Delius’s Paris (Nocturne): The Song of a Great City (1899), the first large-scale orchestral portrait of a cityscape. In Mellers’ words, “Dynamics are dreamy, unreal, as merriment at night often seems to be.” In Day’s words, “All is bustle and perky vitality.” Both Mellers and Day remark that whenever a tune appears it is immediately broken up and its motifs combined with motifs of other fragmented tunes. Through his audacious technique – he even provides a fugato passage – RVW remakes bawdiness and pub-life in such a way that it surpasses itself through compositional brilliance. The scherzo ends quietly, even so, as if in reference to previous, more somber moments of the musical progress thus far.
Nothing prepares the first time listener for the cry of anguish that ushers in the fourth movement. One finds himself again, in “an abrupt eclat of sound,” in the Wellsian tragedy of the early Twentieth Century industrial city, with its hardship and loneliness. From the cry of anguish a march emerges that RVW wants listeners to connect with the many marches in Edward Elgar’s oeuvre – indeed RVW’s march functions as homage to the genuine father of the English symphony, to the man whose late works said farewell to the Victorian era. On the other hand, RVW’s solemn parade, as Mellers points out, eschews the nobilmente character of the typical Elgarian march; rather, A London Symphony’s procession impresses the listener as grim and insistent, the tread of dignity amidst poverty. It nevertheless passes into quietness, as the Westminster Chimes sound again on harp strings. Something like the misty music of the first movement’s lento asserts itself. RVW names this quiet but transformative extension of the finale “Epilogue.” In Day’s image, “The chimes recede across the ebbing Thames tide instead of building up to a huge awakening of the great city.” The musical figure is one of distance and summation at the same time. Having experienced the titanic borough up close, the listener attains to one last view, both distant, and therefore objective, and emotionally stunning, in the manner of an overwhelming flood of nostalgia for something both dear and rambunctious but also irrecoverable. If the symphony ends in “peace,” as Mellers asserts, such a “peace” can only be “metaphysical.” For Mellers A London Symphony “marks the beginning of Vaughan Williams’ attempt to create large-scale symphonic works evolving from, not against, the principles inherent in ‘religious’ vocal monody.”
Samuel Palmer (1805 – 1881): Cornfield by Moonlight (1830)
A PASTORAL SYMPHONY. The “Great War” – that “War to End Wars” – separates A Pastoral Symphony from its precursor and simultaneously divides RVW’s life into two segments. When war broke out, RVW although in his early forties at the time nevertheless enlisted in the Royal Medical Corps and went to the front to do ambulance duty; he later became a lieutenant in the artillery. (The details of RVW’s service are to be found in the biographies by Ursula Vaughan Williams, his second wife, and Michael Kennedy.) In A Pastoral Symphony RVA responds to his wartime experiences, of which he rarely and only reluctantly spoke or wrote. A Pastoral Symphony incorporates melodic material from RVW’s Mass in G minor for Double Chorus (1921), one of his more austere works yet deeply moving. It is useful to compare A Pastoral Symphony with Morning Heroes (1930) by Arthur Bliss, a choral “symphony” with texts from Homer, Walt Whitman, Wilfrid Owen, and Robert Nichols. Bliss served and survived, but he lost a brother in the conflict and worked up the score to honor the valiant dead while exorcising his grief. Morning Heroes sets texts and thus makes itself verbally explicit. A Pastoral Symphony includes a part for a mezzo soprano – a wordless vocalise appearing at the beginning and end of the final movement. Otherwise A Pastoral Symphony is purely instrumental and must articulate its symbolism by musical indirection. A Pastoral Symphony differs in other ways from Morning Heroes. It rarely rises to a mezzo forte; its melodic material seems on first hearing homogeneous from one movement to the next; and it is modal throughout. The sequence is: (1) Molto moderato; (2) Lento moderato – Moderato maestoso; (3) Moderato pesante; (4) Lento.
The first movement Molto moderato (the ascription is almost a contradiction of terms) establishes the character for the symphony as a whole. The listener hears, as it were at the surface, quiet undulations, led often by the flute and joined by members of the woodwinds and brass, but of the latter, usually a solo horn. Repeated listening reveals, however, a subterranean motion – or rather several layers of subterranean motion and contramotion. One’s awareness of “the gentle pace of change” to quote Day finds complication in the sense of such change as stubborn and implacable, a “purposeful drift” of some “cosmic force.” Perhaps it is the Life Force or élan vital of the French philosopher, constantly rearranging thematic chromosomes in the underground and sending them to the surface to adapt or die in the living web of animal and vegetable vitality. Whatever it is, it stands apart, inhuman, from the human observer, with whom it is even so connected. Perhaps the closest thing to it acoustically is the Gregorian chant in the vaults of a cathedral, echoing from the stone and glass, making its own counterpoint despite its monody. In a visual analogue and to quote Day again, RVW’s musical process resembles the changing patterns of a “kaleidoscope,” which exercise a “haunting power” over the perceiving consciousness. Is it religious? Yes, but despite borrowing material from the Mass in G Minor it is more pagan, pantheistic, Neoplatonic than Christian. Mellers refers to a “suspiration of quavers” and “a process of life within Nature’s continuum.” In the face of so many dead, the notion of continuum placates, to a degree, the grieving soul; the dead live in his remembrance and life in the broader sense has not ceased. The movement’s constant rocking motion (Mellers’ “quavers”) contributes to the auditor’s strange calmness. Such calmness lifts the subject out of his world and into another.
Because RVW had written such items as the three Norfolk Rhapsodies (1905 – 1906) and the concertante piece for violin and chamber orchestra entitled The Lark Ascending (composed 1914 – but not performed until 1920), many early commentators on A Pastoral Symphony assumed that the topographical reference in the score must be English. The second movement, Lento moderato – Moderato maestoso, should have set these early critics straight. It features prominently a trumpet, sounding from a distance, which intones a melody of natural intervals; the score achieves the effect by requiring the trumpeter to play his instrument without using the keys. The final intonation might be interpreted as a botched note, and the effect that of a military bugle player practicing a signal and persistently not getting it right. The probable environment for such a musical phenomenon would be the battlefield during a lull. The listener is thus not in the fields of Surrey but behind the Allied trenches on the Western Front. The solo horn closes out the movement by imitating the bugle-call. According to Mellers, the “slow movement is… about the spiritual state and our separation therefrom”; whereas the ensuing scherzo (Moderato pesante) “brings us to earth” in “a cloddish dance.” That Day writes of a “cosmic remoteness” makes for no contradiction with Mellers: “If this is a dance,” Day asserts, “it is surely a dance of the elements rather than the ballet of oufs and fairies from which it apparently evolved.” The scherzo differentiates itself from the other three movements by its emphasis on rhythm. In some passages, however, one rhythm sounds simultaneously against another, poly-metrics combining with poly-modality.
James Wilson Carmichael (1800 – 1860): HMS Erebus & Terror (1847)
The fourth-movement finale (Lento) commences with a solo vocalise in the mezzo soprano register over a steady rumble (thunder? cannon-fire?) on the timpani. Like the trumpet in the slow movement, the vocalise should sound as if from a distance. RVW was not the first to insert a wordless voice into an otherwise purely instrumental symphony. Carl Nielsen preceded him with his Sinfonia Espansiva (1911), which employs a soprano and a baritone in the second movement, marked coincidentally Andante pastorale. Despite the coincidence of names, no contrast could be greater musically than that between the Nielsen score and the RVW score. In Nielsen the voices are up-close and warm; in RVW the vocalise takes on the character of both a mystery and an epiphany, far away acoustically but in propinquity spiritually. The presence of the voice links the symphony to the Mass in G, with its Gothic bareness, and to the religion that the Mass celebrates. I have earlier ascribed to A Pastoral Symphony a pagan or pantheistic orientation. To claim for it a Christian component might seem paradoxical. Not in context, however. RVW, like the poets he set to music, stood close to Nature. His agnostic neutrality left him open to a reconciliation of otherwise incompatible religious traditions, while his experience of war necessitated reconciliation among many things in order to gain solace. Mellers writes of “an equation between the human and the divine – or at least the other-than-human”; and thus “in transcendence… innocence survives horror.” In Day’s summation, “grief is…transcended [in A Pastoral Symphony] and becomes more cosmic than personal without losing intensity.”
SINFONIA ANTARTICA. The subsequent three symphonies (1935, 1943, and 1947) lack titles; they are identified by their key signature. In 1947 film director Charles Frend tapped RVW to write a score for his big-budget cinema extravaganza Scott of the Antarctic, released in 1948. RVW had at the time already composed a number of film scores, the one for the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Forty-Ninth Parallel (1941) being the best known and most elaborate. Its Prelude sometimes appears as a stand-alone item in disc-anthologies of the composer’s smaller works. Scott of the Antarctic tells the heroic but grim story of the British Antarctic expedition of 1912, when Robert Falcon Scott’s goal was to planet the first flag at the South Pole. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen got there first and Scott and his party froze to death on the way back to their base. The Whitmanian motif of breaking a trail where hitherto no path existed renews its relevance but with an inflection of doom. RVW’s film-score is full of effects, to match the cinematographic effects of the Technicolor production, but like all film-scores it consists of short cues. Recasting the musical piecemeal in symphonic form must have challenged RVW. In any case the Sinfonia Antartica only appeared in 1953, in a premiere with Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra. Sinfonia Antartica is unique among the RVW symphonies in having a five-movement form: (1) Prelude: Andante maestoso; (2) Scherzo: Moderato; (3) Landscape: Lento; (4) Intermezzo: Andante sostenuto; (5) Epilogue: Alla marcia, moderato (non troppo allegro). The forces required by the score include a soprano solo and a wordless women’s chorus who sing wordlessly; tuned percussion and a wind machine back up a large ensemble of strings, woodwinds, brass, piano, and organ.
Sinfonia Antartica makes a complementary pair with A Pastoral Symphony. Both confront Nature; both incorporate the sublimity of Nature. Where in A Pastoral Symphony man transcends his earthly condition through entering into the spiritual side of natural phenomena; in Sinfonia Antartica, by contrast, heroism pitches itself against Nature, recognizing the startling beauty of what it encounters, while succumbing to a brutal environment that it has underestimated. In the final movement, glacier and blizzard triumph over man. In the first movement, marked Molto moderato and designated Prelude, RVW reveals the implacable quality of the southern polar environment. A climbing motif forms a melody by repeating and extenuating itself to a brassy climax. A grim second subject follows, with commentary by the xylophone; after which the soprano and her choral backup enter with a variant of the climbing motif. The score deploys its wind machine for the first time. These special effects obtrude not, but integrate themselves in the orchestral ecology. RVW inserts a passage for his tuned percussion that in the film represents the glittering iciness of the scene. Towards the end of the movement the trumpets play a series of fanfares, which symbolize the stubbornness with which Scott and his party face the disadvantageous situation. Of the wordless vocalizations Mellers writes that they are “without recognizably human identity.” Day remarks that in his use of a wordless female chorus RVW is honoring his old friend Gustav Holst’s use of the same means in the Neptune movement of his Planets suite, where the eighth planet plays the role of “Mystic.”
Sidney Nolan (1917 – 1992): Antarctic Landscape (1964)
Sinfonia Antartica boasts an arch-form: The three major movements are the first, the third, and the fifth; the second and fourth are impressive intermezzi, but intermezzi nevertheless. On the other hand the second, third, and fourth can be seen as the middle of the symphony, forming a unity in itself. The Scherzo, the only non-grim movement, springs from accompaniment early in the film that depicts the fauna of Antarctica – namely whales and penguins – that Scott and his party observe as they set up their base camp. Day writes that the ensuing Landscape functions as the actual finale of the symphony. The Landscape’s contrast with the “Penguin Scherzo” is great indeed. More bleak, and darker even than the Prelude, the Landscape undulates in the flutes while growling in the trombones. A dark fanfare on a descending motif in the brass suggests the deadly cul-de-sac into which the explorers have gotten themselves. The organ blares forth with a prolonged verdict of death, reminiscent again of Holst. Mellers writes of “human/non-human opposition”; and of how “the most mechanized of instruments – at least before invention of electrophonics – expresses Nature’s non-humanity.” Comes now the Intermezzo so named: In the film, the music covers reminiscences of the blizzard-bound men for their previous lives. The violins play a yearning melody taken up and developed by the oboe. The impression on the listener is one of pathos. This might yet be the reaction of one who has seen the film before making acquaintance with the symphony. Better to make the symphony’s acquaintance first and to save the film for later.
As in the case of A London Symphony, Sinfonia Antartica has literary roots and these lie in Scott’s notebooks, the Old Testament, and Percy Shelley’s verse-drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). RVW wrote into the score passages from the Old Testament and Scott’s notebooks and these head the movements. In at least two of the recorded performances (Adrian Boult’s first and André Previn’s) an actor recites the words before each of the movements commences. The gesture interrupts the musical continuity, but the literary references nonetheless influence the interpretation. The overarching quotation is from Shelley: “To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite, / To forgive wrongs darker than death or night, / To defy power which seems omnipotent, / … / Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent: / This… is to be/ Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free, / This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.” Shelley’s Prometheus resembles Milton’s Satan: He rebels against the Will of Zeus; and in Shelley’s poem the Titan’s rebelliousness exerts a magical force that frees him from the chains that tie him to a rock. In the final scene of the drama, that same power of conjuration transforms the tyranny of the Olympians into a utopia where the distinction between divinity and mortal no longer obtains. Prometheus has suffered woes, but they were of his own making, but Prometheus forgives no one. Nature might be a power – and in the scenario of Sinfonia Antartica it is – but it is not a willful power like Zeus. Nature is indifferent to Scott, but Zeus is not indifferent to Prometheus. Nor does Prometheus repent. Scott at his death seems unlikely to have been “joyous” and his “empire” had been beaten to the coveted mark by a Norwegian. Read in this way, the lines from Shelley cause one to re-evaluate Scott and therefore also to re-evaluate the usual interpretation of RVW’s symphony.
RVW designates the Epilogue as alla marcia. In fact this movement functions as the recapitulation and to some extent a redevelopment of the opening Prelude, with references to the other foregoing movements, as well. The Epilogue describes a long diminuendo with the wordless voices and wind machine invoking their prominence. The voices, according to Mellers, represent “Nature herself” as oblivious to the fate of men. To Mellers’ ear, the voices and the wind machine become one phenomenon, “irremediably other than human.” For Day, Nature is nevertheless “a destroyer,” a challenge become a foe, to which Scott’s expedition succumbs, at least partly out of hubris. Early reviews of Sinfonia Antartica opined that RVW failed to develop his material. The listener’s familiarity, which he will acquire through recordings, will prove that opinion erred and that the motifs are constantly developed from movement to movement. The dedicated listener will only with difficulty come away from an audition of Sinfonia Antartica without grief. RVW’ score touches the emotions profoundly and darkly. The listener’s reaction creates something of a paradox because RVW’s special effects have mostly to do with light and luminosity. The piano, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, and other tuned percussion mimic in sound sunlight refracted through ice crystals in the air and the eerie flickering of polar auroras. These prodigies speak of transcendence; they correspond to epiphanic moments. Perhaps the tragedy of Sinfonia Antartica is that the subject catches sight of transcendent things high in the Antarctic sky but, with his eye on the ground, never contemplates or participates in them. Scott, a stubborn man and an egoist, had his eye set unwaveringly on the Pole, a purely immanent symbol. Surrounded by intimations of transcendence, he could see them not – but RVW, in his imagination, could.