Symphony No. 9 (Vaughan Williams)
The Symphony No. 9 in E minor was the last symphony written by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He composed it from 1956 to 1957 and it was given its premiere performance in London by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent on 2 April 1958, in the composer's eighty-sixth year. It was subsequently performed on 5 August 1958 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Malcolm Sargent at a Promenade Concert. Vaughan Williams died three weeks later, on 26 August, the very day on which the symphony was due to be recorded for the first time, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The composer had planned to attend the recording sessions.
Vaughan Williams's original idea was to create a programmatic symphony based on Thomas Hardy's book Tess of the d'Urbervilles, even though the programmatic elements eventually disappeared as work on the composition progressed. Existing sketches clearly indicate that, in the early stages of composition, certain passages related to specific people and events in the novel: in some of the manuscripts, the first movement is headed "Wessex Prelude", and the heading "Tess" appears above sketches for the second movement.
The work is in four movements
- Moderato maestoso
- Andante sostenuto
- Scherzo: Allegro pesante
- Finale: Andante tranquillo
It is worth noting that the opening theme of the slow movement comes from music Vaughan Williams had composed more than fifty years earlier: A Sea Symphony and an even earlier, unpublished tone poem from 1904 called The Solent. The composer himself called the drumbeat music that immediately follows this theme, “the ghostly drummer of Salisbury Plain.”
The orchestra includes:
- Woodwinds: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets (B♭), bass clarinet (B♭), two bassoons, contrabassoon, two alto saxophones (E♭), tenor saxophone (B♭)
- Brass: four horns (F), two trumpets (B♭), flugelhorn (B♭), three trombones, tuba
- Percussion: timpani, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, large gong, tam-tam, deep bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta
- Strings: two harps, and strings
Vaughan Williams's program note accompanying the premiere performance remarked thus:
The usual symphony orchestra is used with the addition of three saxophones and flugelhorn. This beautiful and neglected instrument is not usually allowed in the select circles of the orchestra and has been banished to the brass band, where it is allowed to indulge in the art of vibrato. While in the orchestra it is obliged to play with a pure and unwavering tone. The saxophones, also, are not expected, except possibly in one place in the scherzo, to behave like demented cats, but are allowed to be their own romantic selves. Otherwise the orchestra is normal, and is, the composer hopes, sound in wind and strings.
Very early on in the first movement the three saxophones play a chorale-like passage in chordal harmony, perhaps to emphasise that this will not be the sort of dance band music which the saxophone produces in the scherzo of the Sixth Symphony.
According to Vaughan Williams biographer Michael Kennedy, at its first performances "there was no denying the coolness of the critics' reception of the music. Its enigmatic mood puzzled them, and more attention was therefore paid to the use of the flugel horn and to the flippant programme note." Critic Murray Shafer remarked that the work is notable only "because of [Vaughan Williams's] reputation as a symphonist, and because the composition of the 9th shortly before his death prolongs a certain well-known legend" and "[found] it difficult...to discover much more than a numerical value in the work." He went on to complain about the saxophones and flugelhorn that "all this extra color seems to be employed simply in thickening the middle-orchestra texture, the one area of the orchestra which does not need extra support." Unenthusiastic early reaction, along with the unusual instrumental requirements, may have kept the symphony from having the kind of sustained performance history that most of the others have enjoyed. The flugelhorn player at the premiere was David Mason, who remarked that all the press coverage was about the flugelhorn, to the detriment of serious discussion of the symphony as a work.
The critical reception given to the US Premiere of the work under Leopold Stokowski in Carnegie Hall on 25 September 1958 was more favourable. In the New York Times, Harold C. Schoenberg wrote that "the symphony is packed with strong personal melody from beginning to end ... A mellow glow suffuses the work, as it does the work of many veteran composers who seem to gaze retrospectively over their careers ... In any case, the Ninth Symphony is a masterpiece." In the Musical Courier, G. Waldrop described it as "a work of beauty ... lyricism, sheer tonal beauty and thorough craftsmanship were in evidence throughout."
The differences in the initial critical reactions to the music may have been partly due to the performances. In his 1987 biography of Sir Adrian Boult, Michael Kennedy referred to Sargent's as having been "an unsatisfactory first performance." Percy Grainger, however, who was in Carnegie Hall for the US Premiere, told Ursula Vaughan Williams that Stokowski's performance "seemed a perfect one in every way and the exquisite beauty and cosmic quality of this immortal work struck me as being ideally realised." (Oliver Daniel: Stokowski – A Counterpoint of View – 1982). (Both performances have been issued on CD: Sargent's by Pristine Audio and Stokowski's by Cala Records.). Sargent's World Premiere performance also available as free download/FLAC from The Music Parlour (linked below)
Many critics and writers now consider Vaughan Williams's last symphony to be one of his greatest works. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls this symphony "the most impressive achievement" of Vaughan Williams's final decade and remarks that "both outer movements employ highly original structures – the carefully graded and layered engineering of rhythmic momentum in the first movement is especially striking – and the work offers one of Vaughan Williams's most impressive essays in finely balanced tonal and modal ambiguities."
- "Vaughan Williams and Thomas Hardy: 'Tess' and the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony" by Alain Frogley (Music and Letters, 1987)
- Michael Kennedy, The Works of Vaughan Williams, Second ed., Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 342-3
- Murray Shafer, Notes, 2nd Ser., Vol. 17, No. 1 (Dec. 1959), pp. 150–151
- "David Mason" by Anne McAneney in The Brass Herald, p. 38, Issue 18, May–July 2007, ISSN 1746-1472
- Alain Frogley, Vaughan Williams's Ninth Symphony (Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure), Oxford University Press, 2001
- Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society , No.39, June 2007
- The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London, 2001)