The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 6 in E minor (revised version)

About the Work

Ralph Vaughan Williams Composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams
© Richard Freed

The sixth of Vaughan Williams's nine symphonies, composed between 1944 and 1947, was given its premiere in London on April 21, 1948, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the composer's most conspicuous champion, Sir Adrian Boult. The National Symphony Orchestra's only performance of this work prior to the present concerts was conducted by Leopold Stokowski on February 20, 1951.

The score, as revised in 1950, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, xylophone, two harps, and strings. Duration, 34 minutes.
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It never seems to occur to people," Vaughan Williams remarked near the end of his life, "that a man might just want to write a piece of music." The reference was to the numerous questions and conjectures touched off by his Sixth Symphony, the work widely recognized when it was new as his finest achievement in the symphonic realm, and even more solidly so recognized today.

Vaughan Williams himself was surely in some part to blame for the expectations or assumptions that all of his symphonies would have some descriptive "program," for instead of numbers he had given labels to the first three which forthrightly acknowledged such intentions: A Sea Symphony, A London Symphony, A Pastoral Symphony. Indeed, he did not begin affixing numbers to his symphonies until quite late, originally designating Nos. 4, 5 and 6 by their key signatures alone and No. 7, derived from the score he composed for the film Scott of the Antarctic, with another descriptive title, Sinfonia antartica. The ferocious power of his Fourth, introduced in 1935, was widely interpreted (particularly after 1939) as a portrait of Europe about to erupt in war. Its successor, dedicated "with sincere flattery and without permission to Jean Sibelius," was similarly regarded as a work of peace and reconciliation.

RVW himself did not hesitate to express his displeasure over such assumptions, no matter how strongly the music seemed to support them. He pointed out in a response to a question about all this, in January 1957, that "probably the music would get on just as well" without the descriptive titles and mottoes he had provided for some of his symphonies, and added:

I feel very angry with certain critics who will have it that my 4th Symphony "means" war, and my 5th "means" peace—and so on. If people get help in appreciating music from this descent from the general to the particular, good luck to them. But the opposite can equally be true. It is said that Beethoven's Muss es sein movement in his last quartet arose out of a quarrel with his landlady!
But the Symphony in E minor, the first symphony Vaughan Williams produced after the end of World War II, was so obviously a work of deep personal conviction that the temptations to translate that conviction into specific, external terms was too great to be wholly resisted, even on the part of many who were close to the composer. The 1948 premiere, given in the Royal Albert Hall, drew an impassioned response from the huge audience and without exception the most profound admiration from the critics. Richard Capell, for one, followed up on his original review in the Daily Telegraph with a second piece in which he wrote,
Only the greatly superior artists have so tirelessly renewed the adventure of the spirit…The sixth symphony in E minor takes a new direction. It will challenge every hearer. The adventurous energy is terrific; and, whatever words may be resorted to as a clue, the sheer musical means are compelling and engrossing?The music says that the soul of man can endure pain and face the thought of a remoteness beyond the outermost of the planets.

Frank Howes, one of the most perceptive writers on this composer's music, also reviewed the premiere of the Sixth Symphony He remarked then that anyone who might write about the work 50 years hence will however certainly relate the symphony to the experiences of the war, its challenges, its sinister import for ultimate values, its physical bombardment even. But what will he make of the ghostly epilogue? Here the composer seems to be seeking not the answers but the right questions to ask of human experience. His career has been one long quest… Now he has started off once more on his travels and has begun to prove greater mysteries.
Yet another authoritative compatriot, Michael Kennedy, noting the above statements by Capell and Howes, reports in his book The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams that the composer wrote to him in January 1956,

With regard to the last movement of my No. 6, I do NOT BELIEVE in meanings and mottoes, as you know, but I think we can get in words nearest to the substance of my last movement in "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep."
Vaughan Williams did not, after all, set out to be a chronicler in his symphonies, as Shostakovich did in the years in which their lives overlapped, but he could not help being affected by the world around him. He was as strong in his feeling that a creative artist must absorb and reflect his surroundings and experiences as in his denial of specific "programs" for his symphonies. Thus, while he rejected the notion of this work's being "about" the war that had just ended, it is very much "about" Ralph Vaughan Williams, and he was very much affected by that event.

The composer's point, and the point of the music itself, is that such a work is in no sense delimited by the thoughts or impressions that may have given rise to it—a work of music least of all, which tells us in its sounds and its pulse things that cannot be conveyed in words or in visual images. It matters little that Beethoven's valedictory string quartet may have been inspired by an argument with his landlady, if it meant Beethoven the creator led us from that improbable stimulus to broader and deeper and less finite thoughts.

The four movements of the Sixth Symphony are not only played without pause, but are directly linked, each to the next, by a sustained note. The sequence is not the conventional one; there is nothing conventional about this work. The opening is dramatic in the most demonstrative sense, leading to a lumbering juggernaut theme (not unlike the one in "Uranus, the Magician," the penultimate section of The Planets, by RVW's great friend Gustav Holst). By way of contrast, the second theme is in the nature of a calming benediction (recalling similar material in the Fifth Symphony). The struggle between these two elements passes unresolved.

The second movement is not the symphony's "slow movement," but a Moderato which shares certain characteristics with some of Shostakovich's opening movements that bear that marking—which is to say, it is ruminative, episodic, and in a very free form. There are four concise sections, which Frank Howes insisted represent "both the heartbreak and the militarism of war." In the first, an ostinato figure is introduced which will assume relentless, fearsome proportions later in the movement; there are also mournful, keening passages for the strings, and these melancholy gestures prevail at the end.

The scherzo that follows is a macabre specimen, agitated and violent. One needn't have the war in mind to find it an expression of outrage and protest, and this impression is bolstered by the nasty comments from the saxophone during the brief and infrequent respites. Once a climax of sorts is achieved in a passage RVW labeled "the episode," the initial theme is given a fugal treatment in which, as he described it,

the woodwind experiment as to how the fugue subject will sound upside down but the brass are angry and insist on playing it the right way up, so for a bit the two go on together and to the delight of everyone including the composer the two versions fit, so there is nothing to do now but to continue, getting more excited till the episode tune comes back very loud and twice as slow. Then once more we hear the subject softly upside down and the bass clarinet leads the way to the last movement.

It was with a fine sense of terminology that Vaughan Williams designated the concluding movement an "epilogue" rather than a "finale." It does not provide any traditional sort of resolution or summing-up, nor is it elegiac in the sense of the finales of the last completed symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler; Frank Howes's word for it was "aftermath." The entire movement is quiet and questioning—never rising above pianissimo, and not merely slow but downright static. Another, more obvious likeness to Holst's Planets may suggest itself here, in the way that work's concluding movement, "Neptune, the Mystic," fades away, but Vaughan Williams has conjured up an even greater sense—a more inward sense—of remoteness and isolation. At the outset is another intricately developed fugue, whose subject is related to the ostinato pattern in the second movement: this serves mainly as underpinning for the overall impression of utter and inexorable stillness, of resignation, of silence—expressed, as Vaughan Williams noted, with mere "whiffs of theme." At the very end, he remarked, the strings "cannot make up their mind whether to finish in E-flat major or E minor; they finally decide on E minor, which is after all the home key."