|Ralph Vaughan Williams|
Vaughan Williams: Pastoral Symphony
On face value, there are few works to beat Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘Pastoral’ Symphony as an example of the eponymous genre. (I have eschewed discussing the ever popular, chart topping, Lark Ascending.) The Symphony was begun shortly after RVWs return from France and was completed in 1921. From the opening bars to the dying pages of the wordless soprano solo in the epilogue, it appears to epitomise the English landscape. Frank Howes wrote that this work does for the countryside as the same composer’s first symphony did for the Sea and the second did for London. The Pastoral Symphony is largely contemplative from end to end. Michael Kennedy has insisted that Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony cannot bear comparison to Beethoven’s. He declares that ‘There are no imitation bird-calls, no thunderstorms and no ‘awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the countryside.’
The composer made use of modal melodies derived from his enthusiasm for folksong and Tudor ecclesiastical music, although there are no ‘actual’ folksongs quoted in this work. There is a constant interweaving of melodies with triadic blocks of harmonies setting up false relations. Page after page of this score is restrained: there are virtually no climaxes.
Vaughan Williams had prepared the ground for music critics to derive a false understanding of this work within the parameters of ‘English Pastoral’. Pre-war compositions had included the Norfolk Rhapsodies and In the Fen Country. Earlier tone-poems musically evoking the English countryside and coast had delivered Harnam Down, Boldre Wood and The Solent. And finally there was that arch-typical example of the pastoral genre The Lark Ascending which had gestated during the war years.
In 1916 Vaughan Williams joined the Royal Army Medical Corp as an ambulance driver and saw action on the Western Front and latterly in Salonica.
The composer never explicitly defined what inspired his Pastoral Symphony. However the nearest he came to explaining it was in a letter to his future wife Ursula Wood: -
‘It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted… It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset’.
There is the oft-told tale of how the composer heard a bugler practicing ‘behind the lines’ or was it at the RAMC depot at Borden in Hampshire? Sometimes the bugler would hit the seventh instead of the octave. This has been preserved as the key theme in the second movement.
The third movement ‘scherzo’ which barely lives up to its name has ‘menace’. It is as if a malignant force has appeared on the sunlit uplands. Yet even here this is not the clash of armies or the despair of the wounded and the horror of the dying. It is something deeper: something elemental.
Modern criticism evacuates the notion that this is a work that evokes a summer Sunday’s ramble on the Cotswolds or a climb up Box Hill on a sunny day. It is the French Landscape that is meditated on…
But what are we left with? Perhaps this modern criticism is misplaced?
Three things can be adduced:-
Firstly, the composer was clearly conscious of the English landscape: presumably he did not forget the moods, the sights and smells and sounds of Gloucestershire and the South Downs even when he was in action. He would often have recalled happier days tramping the countryside with Gustav Holst in search of the remnants of a rural musical past. This would have been intensified by the insecurities of the battlefield surroundings.
This remembrance of happier times surely coloured much that is in this symphony.
Secondly, the landscape of Northern France is in many ways similar to parts of England-and it was not all a sea of mud as the well-worn myth implies. It would have reminded the composer of those cheerier days. So, perhaps there is a touch of ‘cow and gate’ here, though this is definitely not the predominant mood.
One can only imagine his duties as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corp with a shudder. He must have witnessed things that no-one should ever have to see. True, there would have been lighter moments, humour, banter and the huge satisfaction of saving lives –and time spent on R&R behind the lines. However, the horrors would lie deep. The loss of friends would colour his thoughts. Vaughan Williams once wrote to Gustave Holst:-
‘I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps’. The name of George Butterworth springs to mind: there were many others.
So, I believe that there is a deeply elegiac mood to much of this music. This is the composer’s War Requiem.
The Pastoral Symphony is a huge ‘tragedy’ modified by a great hope for the future. It is loss, but it is also a reflection on the nobler aspects of humankind’s nature. This is music that looks forward to the triumph of Bunyan’s Pilgrim as he nears the end of his journey with a glimpse of the Celestial City from the ‘Delectable Mountains’. It also looks back to something more tragic in the pages of Job or more horrific in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
In this sense, Ralph Vaughan William’s Pastoral Symphony epitomises a subtle balance of melancholy with and active remembrance of the rural aspects of England that the composer recalled whilst on active service.
To be continued...