the pastoral symphony

A Pastoral Symphony

Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 3, published as A Pastoral Symphony and not numbered until later, was completed in 1922. Vaughan Williams's initial inspiration to write this symphony came during World War I, after hearing a bugler practicing and accidentally playing an interval of a seventh instead of an octave; this ultimately led to the trumpet cadenza in the second movement. The work is among the least performed of Vaughan Williams' symphonies, but it has gained the reputation of being a subtly beautiful elegy for the dead of World War I and a meditation on the sounds of peace. Like many of the composer's works, the Pastoral Symphony is not programmatic, but its spirit is very evocative. None of the movements is particularly fast or upbeat, but there are isolated extrovert sections to be found.

The symphony is in four movements:

  1. Molto moderato - contentedly calm in tone, but with a darker central section, the opening movement contains harmonies reminiscent of Ravel, one of Vaughan Williams' tutors. The music is lyrical, often features solo instruments, and sounds almost improvised, so naturally do the ideas flow into one another. Despite this sense, closer examination reveals that the movement is really in sonata form.
  2. Lento moderato - the slow movement opens with an F Major horn solo above an F Minor chord, a theme which is developed by a solo 'cello. Just as in the first movement, the ideas flow gently from one to the next, ultimately leading to the trumpet cadenza. It is in effect a natural trumpet (a trumpet without valves) in Eb since the player is not to use the valves, so that the interval of a seventh has its natural, slightly "out-of-tune" intonation. The entire cadenza is played over a pedal note in the strings. A bit later on the cadenza reappears on the horn, gently accompanied by the movement's opening theme now played on the clarinet. The movement ends with a restlessly quiet chord in the violins' high register.
  3. Moderato pesante - Vaughan Williams described this movement, a scherzo in all but name, as a "slow dance". The trio, introduced by the brass section, has a quicker, brighter quality but retains some of the heaviness of the earlier music. After the shortened return of the main material there is a remarkable coda - a quiet, mercurial, and very dreamlike passage with some fugal writing, that can almost be described as "fairy music". This is the only time truly quick music appears in the symphony. A theme from the main section of the movement creeps into this fugue, so different as to be barely recognisable. The movement ends in a peaceful major chord, all trace of weariness gone.
  4. Lento - the final movement begins with a modal recitative for a wordless soprano voice (silent until this point), sung over a soft drumroll. The orchestra then begins an elegiac rhapsody, and the meditative understatement of the preceding three movements is quickly replaced with an impassioned outpouring of feeling. The tensions simmering beneath the surface now break out directly; the high point of the symphony comes when the violins all state the opening soprano melody appassionato. At the very end of the symphony, the soprano returns to sing the music into silence.

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