The first time I heard Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 in D major was at the City Hall in Glasgow on Saturday 8 November 1975. Christopher Seaman was conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I was set next to a young lady with whom I had the privilege of sharing the score. I am not sure that I wasn’t concentrating more on her than on the printed page.
There has been much written about this work; from brief reviews to dissertation-style analyses. However, what Robin Hull was reviewing in the 1946 edition of the Penguin Music Magazine was the first edition of the miniature score. This had been published some three years after the first performance by Oxford University Press. It was priced 12/6d. This would be the equivalent of more than £10 at today’s value.
Hull wrote: ‘The long awaited score…is a model of clear printing and first-rate production.’ He was keen to emphasise this as he considered ‘publishers seemed often to forget that miniature or reduced scores must be legible; the whole purpose is nullified if the music-lover has to examine them through three pairs of spectacles.’
He then gave his opinion of the work as one that is ‘superbly integrated’ and representing ‘an almost perfect summing up of Vaughan Williams art.’ Hull was not to know that the 73 year old composer was to go on to write another four examples of the genre.
The reviewer felt that the moods are mainly lyrical and deeply meditative, the invention is of exquisite beauty; the expression of this beauty ranges from downright virility to an enchanting tenderness.’ After a few words relating this work to the Pastoral Symphony (No.3) and the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, he suggests that the symphony ‘enshrines the world liberated from evil’. Hull does not suggest that the symphony is ‘flawless’. He considers that the ‘scuffled scurry of the Scherzo’ does not quite makes its point. The final passage of the fourth movement ‘passacaglia’ is deemed to be ‘over-smooth and too easy going to clinch so momentous an argument.’ Finally he concludes by asking the question as to whether Vaughan Williams’ ‘ending returns the full answer that the Symphony as a whole leads us to expect.
I disagree with some of Robin Hull’s criticism. However, he did not have the advantage of seeing this work in its position as the ‘middle’ symphony of the cycle – Hull clearly assumed that it was the composer’s final say on the subject. Looking back on the nine symphonies I believe that the composer did make the expected ‘clinching’ of his career in the final pages of the Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-7). Others may disagree. The present work is in complete contrast to the aggressive ‘Fourth’ however it is not a return to the mood of the Pastoral. In this present work the there is a slightly sinister element that balances the hymn-like mood of benediction.
The score was reprinted in 1947 with a few revisions. The full score was revised in 1951 ‘in time for the first LP recording’ and was again corrected and published in 1961. In 2009 Dr. Peter Horton edited the score to remove a number of problems and misprints. He had gone back to the original manuscript to correct many issues of ‘phrasing and articulation.’
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 in D major was premiered during a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 24 June 1943. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by the composer. Other works heard that evening included the Overture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1910) Suite and the concert concluded with John Ireland’s Epic March. The Symphony did not receive its first commercial recording until the Boult/London Philharmonic Orchestra Recording of 1954 (Decca LXT 2910).