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Vaughan Williams and the Symphony

by Lionel Pike

Toccata Press

352pp including indices (1. works; 2. technical; 3. general)
Symphonic Studies No. 2
ISBN 0907689 54 X (case bound)
ISBN 0907689 55 8 (paper)


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I was about to write that the Vaughan Williams symphonies are now securely part of the concert repertoire. That would have been wrong. In fact the symphonies remain comparative rarities (except perhaps the Sea Symphony - a favourite of choral societies); not, it is true, as rare as the Bax symphonies but certainly not all that common.

Where Vaughan Williams' 'Nine' are securely established is in the record catalogue with cycles of the nine by Thomson (Chandos), Previn (RCA-BMG), Boult (1950s Decca; 1960s-70s EMI), Bakels (part Naxos); Slatkin (BMG); Davis (Teldec), Haitink (EMI), Handley (EMI). Hickox's original versions series is emerging with tortoise-like progress from Chandos (numbers 6 and 8 just issued, Sept 2003).

This book is laid out with one chapter per symphony, an Introduction, a prelude and epilogue and a 4 page Bibliography. Each symphony chapter is divided into sections one section for each movement.

The target audience for this book is one that is musically literate in a technical sense or perhaps for people studying towards musical literacy. The general enthusiast without the ability to read and analyse music will soon be swamped in references to transpositions, Mixolydian and Lydian modes, the Phrygian diatessaron, hemiola, sudominants, chord types and tonal structure. Of course as an out-and-out lay enthusiast of RVW you may be prepared to weather these technical doldrums for the more approachable material Dr Pike has to pass on. I hope so. I am sure that enthusiasts without technical knowledge have much to learn if they are prepared to stagger studiously through these pages with full score and recordings to hand. You will already have guessed that while I can just about follow a full score the writer has no knowledge of musical analysis or of structure. The book's academic legitimacy is proclaimed through careful footnoting.

The introduction makes some probing remarks. Pike banishes the image of RVW as a countryman. He would never have left London but for Adeline's protracted illness and he returned in 1953 after her death. His 'field days' with Holst were aborted when Holst died in 1934 and their place was taken by an inner sanctum of friends: Howells. Bliss and Finzi. While he was late in starting them (he was 42 when he finsihed a Sea Symphony) they then remained a cyclic obsession until death intervened with a completed Ninth in 1958. The Sea Symphony is fairly enough described as uneven and exploratory. Its success is embedded in its choral and solo requirements making it a natural mark for choral societies. For listeners it has it longueurs although the use of Whitman's text is one of its strengths. Dr Pike comments on the London Symphony beinbg an enormous advance technically on the previous one. Dr Pike does not mention the original version now recorded by Chandos with Hickox.

The Pastoral is very unusual because of its predominance of slow music. Howells wrote of the composer's courage in writing such a work. Frank Howes (not exactly an uncritical enthusiast of the British musical renaissance) recalled the best performance he had ever heard being one conducted by George Dyson in Hereford Cathedral. The acerbic Fourth was the first symphony written without Holst's frank counsel. Instead Bax (the dedicatee), R.O. Morris and Boult served as 'critical friends'. Why Dr Pike lists Bax's Third Symphony as an example of similarly violent works I do not know. I would agree that Rubbra's First is in that category but the Bax Third is a tapestry of gaudy colours and subtle emotional and illustrative poetry and even in its few demonstrative climactic moments the issue is colour rather than violent conflict. The linkage between Sibelius, the Fifth Symphony and Pilgrim's Progress is duly made. It is Sibelius's Sixth that seems the closest relative among the Finnish seven.

The Sixth is treated in the usual great detail. I noted a comparison between the desolation of Holst's Egdon Heath and the epilogue of the Sixth. He comments that of the the middle symphonies they are prophetic of war (4), peace (5) and the dangers of atomic weapons (6). He goes on to say that if the Fifth is about a journey to the Celestical City, No 6 is a journey into a bitter despairing void. Pike brackets the Eighth with Beethoven's Eighth, Prokofiev’s Classical, Schulhoff’s Second, Shostakovich’s Ninth and Havergal Brian's Ninth (Pike was and may yet still be an office-bearer with the Havergal Brian Society). We are reminded that the only major work between the 8th and 9th is the motet A Vision of Aeroplanes. The Ninth represents a return to the serious intention. It was written in Majorca and at Joy Finzi's home in Newbury between 1956 and 1957. The preoccupations and inspirations it reflects include Hardy's Wessex and specifically Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the British cathedrals and the Solent (itself the subject of an early RVW tone poem - now how about a recording of that). In the two page epilogue Pike makes the point that every one of the symphonies contrasts with its predecessor and that RVW took to heart Whitman's exhortation to 'steer for the deep waters only'. The book examines the structure of each symphony relating the works to the European models of symphonic and sonata form.

Martin Anderson's Toccata Press is very much a one man band. Progress of its books towards publication is at a snail 's pace but when they do appear they are invariably of rewarding content and superb finish. I look forward with no patience at all to Michael Crump's book on the Martinu symphonies and Colin Scott-Sutherland's major study of the life and works of Ronald Stevenson. Let's hope that they are not as long in the mill as Diana McVeagh's Finzi biography for OUP (and will that EVER see the light of common day?).

This book's emphasis is on the technical side which is all to the good as a corrective given the opprobrium pitched at Vaughan Williams over his alleged clumsiness, technical ineptitude and amateurism.

I did not detect any typos apart from one in the bibliography on p. 339 where correspondance appears rather than the correct correspondence.

This is the second in the Symphonic Studies series. if you were wondering, the first was Brian Newbould's 'Schubert and the Symphony'. No.3 will be Michael Crump's book on the Martinu Symphonies.

This is an extremely well presented and intricate dissection and commentary on Vaughan Williams' nine symphonies.

Rob Barnett


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