Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony gets a rare hearing
The composer drew on experiences in the First World War
Friday 15 February 2013
Fans of Ralph Vaughan Williams are in for a treat. Next week, the BBC Concert Orchestra is to perform his Third or Pastoral Symphony in London, rated by many followers as among his finest works – yet one that is seldom played.
Vaughan Williams composed the symphony in 1921 as a cathartic response to his experiences during the First World War. In 1914, aged 42, he joined an ambulance brigade and so witnessed the carnage on the Western Front. The symphony is a work of longing and regret, lamenting the loss of many young friends as well as the decimation of Britain's manhood. He memorably incorporated a trumpet solo inspired by an army bugler he had heard practising, who repeatedly missed a high note. The trumpet passage poignantly mimics this, with echoes of The Lark Ascending (composed in 1914) and the “Last Post”.
When the symphony was first performed in 1922, some critics considered it naive and simplistic – “Like a cow looking over a gate,” one said. Others read it as an elegiac and contemplative piece that was also technically complex and innovative. Since then, its reputation has grown. The eminent critic Michael Kennedy considers it Vaughan Williams's greatest and most radical symphony, which raises the question: why it is so rarely performed?
Kennedy's own explanation is that it “requires superb playing and enlightened conducting if it is to create its special atmosphere.” It also needs “proper rehearsal time to ensure that the rich array of thematic material is played fluently.”
For Charles Hazlewood, the BBC's conductor, The Pastoral is “not a piece you would want to play or hear very often – it's not a comfortable or easy listen. If we get it right, there will be a profound sense of unease.”
I have long been drawn to the symphony, in part because my father was an infantryman in the First World War. While researching this article, I came upon some astonishing coincidences. Vaughan Williams's ambulance unit was attached to the same brigade as my father. Both were privates, and both crossed from Southampton to Le Havre – most likely on the same boat – on 22 June 1916. Later they fought Bulgarian forces at the Battle of Doiran. Both finished up in France in 1918.
My father, who died when I was 11, never talked to me about his experiences. Perhaps I will gain a deeper sense of what he went through when I hear the symphony.
BBC Concert Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (www.southbankcentre.co.uk) 24 February
educationTo mark International Women's Day, Sarah Brown on how charities have brought proper joined-up thinking to the delivery of education
Arts & Ents blogs
Jared Leto: Best Supporting Actor Oscar sparks backlash from transgender community
In Kony's shadow: Shocking photographs reveal brutality of Lord's Resistance Army
Captain Phillips actor Barkhad Abdi struggles despite Oscar nomination
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill set for new film penned by Captain Phillips screenwriter Billy Ray
First clip of Outkast's Andre 3000 in Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side emerges
Apple's Tim Cook: Business isn’t just about making profit
Thousands of young people forced to go without food after benefits wrongly stopped under 'draconian' new sanctions regime
Ukraine crisis: New navy chief 'defects' and surrenders Crimean HQ as Putin claims ultranationalists forced intervention
Ukraine crisis: Russia dismisses '3am ultimatum' as 'total nonsense'
If you're horrified by a flame-roasted dog, you should be shocked at a hog roast
Poor 'live like animals' says Boris's privately educated sister after going on 'poverty safari'
- 1 The future of sex: The first female condoms were derided, mistrusted and shunned - but will their modern counterparts catch on?
- 2 South African rhino finally put down after roaming Kruger park for days with horn hacked off and bullet in brain
- 3 Study suggests that 'gaydars' are real - at least for women
- 4 Man stabbed with Legend of Zelda Master Sword in serious condition
- 5 First clip of Outkast's Andre 3000 in Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side emerges