Vaughan Williams’s ‘modernist’ symphony

Vaughan Williams (and Foxy the cat)

Ashgate has just published an essay collection, British Music and Modernism, 1895–1960, edited by Matthew Riley. It promises to be an important contribution to the ongoing complication of the picture of modernism in music, which scholars of British twentieth-century music in particular have become increasingly interested in during the last decade.

My contribution to it is an essay on Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, a work much bandied about by critics (‘Vaughan Williams’s Antic Symphony’. In British Music and Modernism 1895–1960, edited by Matthew Riley, 175–96. Aldershot: Ashgate. 2010.). Those who suggest it is ‘modernist’ apply a traditional set of criteria to understand the term – surface dissonance, profoundly antagonistic approach to form, etc. – and then either laud Vaughan Williams as a member of (by implication) the only club worth joining in twentieth-century music, or else sideline the work as being untypical of its composer, who belongs more comfortably among the cow pats. By contrast, some critics point to the work’s recognizably classical form (it’s a symphony, in four movements, with a key signature, has themes and recognizable cadences, and so on). The only agreement is that we have to frame our response around the question ‘is it modernist or not?’

Drawing on readings of Stravinsky by Rudolf Stephan and Geoffrey Chew, I read the symphony as a parody both of modernist and classical processes, which ultimately refuses to be accommodated by either interpretation. I focus an important thread in British approaches to modernism, that of ridicule. Far from being – as some believe – a premoniton (in 1935) of coming total war or a sour reflection on hopes for humanity, the symphony is, I suggest, a kind of joke, thumbing its nose at the already sterile debate about whether modernism or something else should be pursued by ‘good’ composers (particularly those, like Vaughan Williams, of a politically progressive temperament). By feinting at modernist technique but subsuming it within a more conventionally conceived whole, this symphony refuses to accede either to the aesthetic or to the ideological premises of modernism. Yet its sardonic rejection of those premises, which is expressed (in part) in the mode of modernism, has of course simply reinscribed it within the whole discourse of modernism that it attempts to demolish, and in that sense it’s a failure. That’s why critics keep trying to reach a decision on whether it’s modernist or not. No surprise there. Satire tends, as Žižek observes, not to undermine but to support a prevailing ideology. But it’s a fascinating symphonic attempt to tackle a question about artistic style that still won’t go away.


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