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
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