Vaughan Williams’s Antic Symphony

This is the full text of an article published in Matthew Riley (ed.), British Music and Modernism, 1895–1960. Its contents are described in this blogpost.

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Vaughan Williams’s Antic Symphony by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


J. P. E. Harper-Scott, ‘Vaughan Williams’s Antic Symphony’, in Matthew Riley (ed.), British Music and Modernism, 1895–1960 (Ashgate, 2010), 175–95.

The Problem of ‘Modernism’

Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, premiered in 1935, appears to constitute one of his most obvious claims for membership of the modernist party in twentieth-century British composition. It is one of the rare works of pre-Manchester-School British music that the general public is likely to classify with confidence as ‘modernist’. Nevertheless, the snarling dissonances of the Fourth Symphony’s opening and the gruff closing gesture of its finale—‘the musical equivalent of a shake of a fist and a slammed door’, in Michael Kennedy’s memorable image[1]—place it in a class apart. Its stark harmonic and gestural language constitute a cataclysmic overthrow of Vaughan William’s preceding output, a Grendel crunching bloodily through the flesh and bone of the style that produced the Tallis Fantasia and the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.

Reminding us of its composition during the Great Depression, while fascism spread across Europe, today’s programme-note writers—who may be considered a good litmus test of the general musical public’s views of the symphony—suggest that we hear the suffering of the people and the steady approach of another total war.[2] Almost all critics now cite the composer’s apparently self-scandalized words in support of their fascist/Depression reading (‘I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant’),[3] but neglect to mention his conflicting observation that ‘I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external—e.g. the state of Europe’[4].

I disagree with this view of the work for two reasons. First and fundamentally, it seems to me that what is most striking about the symphony’s musical language is its terseness and its self-conscious exploration of issues of form and tonality, rather than its overt but, in the final analysis, rather harmless dissonance. Despite its harmonic ‘crunches’ the work has no trouble in projecting an essentially classically rooted tonality, and there is no modernist ‘disaster’ lurking in the last

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pages of the finale as a result. The tonic, the foundation of tonal structure, is as clear from beginning to end as it ever is in Brahms or Beethoven, and more so than in Wagner or Mahler; and tonal definition increases as the work proceeds, in line with the classical model, creating a sense of security at the level of tonal design that is antithetical to the modernist tonal structures of Mahler, Strauss and Elgar.

Second, it takes a special kind of personality—a particular cultural and moral outlook—to write a modernist work, and Vaughan Williams apparently did not have it. It is not difficult to find modernists explaining their position in terms of Schoenberg’s dictum ‘if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art’,[5] but Vaughan Williams could not have had more different beliefs. He maintained the outlook of a Victorian Radical, standing in the tradition of English liberal intellectuals described by Matthew Riley in Chapter 1 of this book. As Chris Walton points out, Vaughan Williams held that a composer was not a leader but a servant of the community.[6] Political and social views like these, made it difficult for Vaughan Williams to accept the terms of German modernism. What Walton calls the ‘leader principle’ (Führerprinzip) of Strauss and Schoenberg had dictated that a single great artistic voice should lead listeners in new and unexpected directions, destroying old certainties and unsettling the public where necessary, but avoiding ‘what the audience wants’.

Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony cannot readily be pigeonholed as a modernist, postmodern, or conservative work; instead it engages the listener in fascinating semiotic games, as I hope to demonstrate in the analysis that follows. I argue that, far from being a blazing monument to modernism, the Fourth Symphony was written in part with a galumphing, well-intentioned humour in mind. In proposing this reading I make two broad claims. First, in this symphony Vaughan Williams, like Hamlet, adopts an antic disposition, behaving in certain grotesque ways that tend to disguise motivations. Although I disagree with the currently accepted view of the symphony, I do not dismiss it outright, for it has a strong basis in observation: there is a lot of acerbic harmonic writing in it, and many of its gestures seem to cry out for interpretation as ‘modernist’. So even though in the final analysis I will suggest that there is more to the story than this, it would be critical nonsense to deny a simple ‘modernist’ (or any other) character that is strongly projected just because a more complex character is discovered behind it. Second, and here I borrow a definition from Rudolf Stephan that I shall expand upon below, Vaughan Williams’s ‘parody’ of the genre of the symphony,

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the traditions of musical modernism, and his own style, explains his witty dalliance with certain distinctive and suggestive musical gestures.[7]

The Shifting Semiotics of the Fourth Symphony

The work’s first critics did not hear the Fourth Symphony the way that we do now.[8] That ought to be a truism of reception studies, but in this case it is particularly suggestive. Critics in 1935 were living in difficult economic times, and reading reports of the hideous early days of Nazi rule in Germany. They could ignore neither of these things, yet even in a work so conspicuously arresting in its surface musical language, and so palpably at odds stylistically with most of what the ‘cow pat’ composer had written before, they did not hear in it their own economic pain or political anxiety. If this was a work written to express the mood of the moment, then it is something that only later generations have grasped.

‘Playing with signs’, the title of V. Kofi Agawu’s study of classical-period semiotics,[9] is also (despite the historical gulf) a fair description of one of the characteristic behaviours of twentieth-century music. With so many tonal gestures freighted with historical significance, twentieth-century composers were even less at liberty than eighteenth-century composers had been to avoid addressing conflicting stylistic signals in their music. The most compellingly theorized reading of this semiotic play in practice is Rudolf Stephan’s essay on Stravinsky’s neoclassical style, which is itself perhaps the most intense manifestation of this playfulness in the period.

According to Stephan, Stravinsky ‘makes strange’ (verfremdet) and ‘parodies’ (parodiert) the formal and gestural signs of the classical style.[10] That is to say, he alludes to the former style not simply to replicate it, but to actively prevent us from hearing his music as a replication. Stravinskian parody has the ‘important

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and wholly new job of preventing an “automatic” apperception of the music’.[11] To put that another way, neoclassical parody makes one think patiently: we know that we cannot hear a particular gesture as Mozart might have intended it, and know further that we have to riddle out its new meaning in the Stravinskyan context.[12] Applying Stephan’s theory to The Rake’s Progress, Geoffrey Chew provides a convenient shorthand for understanding how to distinguish between gestures that are more ‘real’ on the one hand and more ‘parodistic’ on the other, which I shall borrow in the discussion that follows. In technical terms Stravinsky’s neoclassical technique boils down to

a study of the choices between tonal congruence (‘yes’ decisions) and non-congruence (‘no’ decisions) in the ways in which established foreground and middleground prolongational procedures are assembled. All such choices are open in both classical and neoclassical tonality, but classical (‘common practice’) tonality may be defined as music in which the ‘no’ choices must be balanced by ‘yes’ choices elsewhere, in such a way that all prolongations can eventually be understood as congruent.[13]

A harmonically congruent ‘yes’ decision would be one that, for instance, shows eventually how an ‘unexpected’ or ‘illogical’ chord fits tidily within a tonal plan after all (Chew suggests that Beethoven might make an ‘illogical’ G flat chord within F major part of a ‘logical’ I–flat II–V progression). A non-congruent ‘no’ decision might be to establish a context in which the G flat chord sounds ‘illogical’ but then in effect to say ‘Well, I can live without logic, but I want you to know that I’m doing so deliberately’. Although this collage-style parodying is typical of the neoclassical Stravinsky, Stephan points out that we could trace it in composers from Machaut to Webern.[14] It is, perhaps, only the selfconsciousness that is new, and only the choice of tonal style to parody that makes this style neoclassical.

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So parody itself is not modernist, and Vaughan Williams’s use of parody does not make this symphony modernist. Rather, parody is a technique that Stravinsky uses as a tool of modernism, and that Vaughan Williams uses as an antic tool.

The weighing of ‘yesses’ and ‘nos’ is the ‘game’ that we agree to play when parody is a central technique, and I suggest that Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony issues a similar invitation to the listener, although unlike Stravinsky he is not using a Mozartian style as his basis for parody, but rather a blend of classical and modernist expectations, more or less as fancy takes him: it is the quickly shifting signification of this symphony, which sometimes feints towards a classical procedure (which is then denied), and sometimes towards a modernist one (like the bitonality in the second movement, which is brought snugly into a monotonal framework) that makes it antic. So, Vaughan Williams invites us to play a variety of games in this symphony, and every time we agree to play it, he changes the rules—or switches to another game altogether.

Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony therefore adopts a similar parodistic purpose to Stravinsky’s neoclassical style but uses different parodistic techniques (because he is not simply parodying classicism). This prevents it from being neoclassical: it might be one of a small group of symphonic works (including Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony) that one could call ‘neomodern’—though it is never straightforwardly so, because it resists all forms of labelling. As we shall see, the distortions of harmonic logic—for instance in the bitonality of the opening of the slow movement—and of the overarching tonal process tend, if we can imagine an infinitely gradated scale from Mozartian classicism to Stravinskian modernism, more towards the high proportion of ‘yes’ decisions that characterize Mozart than the high proportion of ‘no’ decisions that characterize Stravinsky.. This is what makes this modernist-feinting symphony ultimately rather classicizing, as well as fascinating.[15]

Motivic and Tonal Processes in the First Movement

In terms of motivic and tonal process the first movement of the Fourth Symphony could have been written by Beethoven or Schubert. In addition to the manipulation of two important melodic motives that almost every commentator on the symphony has drawn attention to—a ‘turn’ figure introduced as F–E♮–G♭–F (marked ‘motive (a)’ in Ex. 9.1) and a motive largely constructed as a series of rising fourths (marked ‘motive (b)’)—there are two basic procedures that drive the first movement. The first is an expansion of the rising-fourth motive into a deep middleground structure. The second is an exploration of the harmonic structures implicit in the parsimonious voice-leading of hexatonic systems.[16]

 

 

Ex. 9.1. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, middleground sketch of first movement
Ex. 9.1. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, middleground sketch of first movement

The brittle dissonances that open and close the work, D♭–C over C at the opening and G♭–F over F at bar 20 of the first movement and bar 444 of the finale, establish the Kopfton and begin the middleground treatment of motive (b), as can be seen in Ex. 9.1.[17] In their pointed resistance to consonant configuration, the minor ninths give the symphony’s first ‘no’ answer. It is a potentially modernist start, but will only prove modernist in retrospect if the ‘no’ remains unbalanced by ‘yesses’ at the end’. At the opening of the work the tonic must be presumed from context to be C minor, with motive (a) providing ambiguous modal mixture during its E♮–E♭–F–E♮ turn in bars 6–7. Following the introduction of motive (b) at bars 16–17, however, the bass C is treated as a dominant (its Kopfton C moving to a dissonant lower-neighbour C♭ upon the creation of a dissonant chord on the dominant at bar 17) to the F which then acts as a tonic from bar 19. There follows a restatement of the opening idea on the tonic, F minor.

The sonata form of the movement comprises two complete cycles through primary and secondary thematic materials, labelled ‘P’, ‘S1’, and ‘S2’ in Ex. 9.1. The P materials, essentially impassioned elaborations of motives (a) and (b), run without a break, and without leaving F minor, until the entry of the first of the secondary materials, S1, at bar 49. Here throbbing brass and woodwind chords, punctuated by pizzicato string chords at the junctures between the two timbres, accompany a lyrical melody given by violins, violas, and high cellos in octaves from bar 52. The string line articulates B♭ major (accented ^7 and ♯^4 in bars 53 and 54). The principal melodic pitch, D, emerges as an inner voice from the initial, powerful dominant gesture at bar 17. This lifts the D♭ of the original motive (b)—shown on a smaller stave above the main stave in Ex. 9.1—a semitone to D♮. The bass, which prolongs the tonic, B♭, continues the motion from C to F that had underpinned the primary materials.

A new secondary idea, S2, follows an emotionally sweeping summation of S1 in bars 81–4. Underpinned by a bass that uses an augmented-sixth pentachord (pitch-class set 5–28 in Allen Forte’s system)[18] to prolong G♯, the melody skips up a third to F♯ from the Kopfton’s neighbouring D♮, insistently repeating the new

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note beneath accompanying reminders of S1 in the woodwind (bars 87–8, 90–91 and 93–4).

The development, which is of Mozartian brevity and uses only the primary melodic material, begins at bar 123 with a massive restatement of P1, this time over ♯vi (a second-inversion chord of D minor). It begins by tonicizing that key, thus completing a middleground motion C–F–B♭–D♮ that embeds motive (b) in the structure, shown as a smaller stave below the main stave in Ex. 9.1. It then simply proceeds via a circle of fifths through ii (bar 137) and V (bar 174) to i for the recapitulation at bar 179, initiating a second deep-middleground parallelism for motive (b), this time closing on D♭ in bar 228. Aside from the differences in pitches, this technique is directly comparable to Beethoven’s structural use of the motion E♭–D–C♯(–C♮–F) in the opening movement of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony No. 3. Both of the goal notes of these middleground motive (b) progressions will provide answers in the finale to questions that are already being posed in the first movement. Principal among them is whether steps will be taken to refute the opening minor-ninth modernist ‘no’ through a dominant-led tonal definition. As ♮vi and ♭vi, these prolongations of D and D♭ studiously avoid the dominant that would give that definition.

Unsurprisingly after a development section that is built on P, Vaughan Williams truncates the return of P in the recapitulation from 48 bars to 10. Shorn of its opening clash between C and D♭, the recapitulation form of P opens with a clear F minor (^3 and ^5 receiving jarring accented upper neighbours) which begins an exploration of hexatonic relationships that will continue through the remainder of the movement and recur later in the symphony. These provide tonal colour without conclusively moving away from the tonic: neo-Riemannian tonal relations like this are an alternative to the tonal polarity of tonic and dominant, but are generally used in contexts where that polarity is assumed.[19] The hexatonicism here is, therefore, an opportunity for Vaughan Williams to defer the decision whether to provide (or deny) tonal affirmation, to continue his parodistic allusion to modernist process for the time being.

The Kopfton is regained as the result of an arpeggiation through an F major chord (bars 179–85), which is reached in the middleground motion of the recapitulation by the ‘parallel’ transformation (on neo-Riemannian terms), and which provides the tonal focus for the opening of S1. On route to S2 there are three further transformations: ‘leading-note exchange’ to A minor, ‘parallel’ to A major, and a combination of ‘leading-note exchange’ and ‘parallel’ to D♭ major. The final

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element in the hexatonic system is provided by the ‘parallel’ transformation to D♭ minor at bar 228, with the completion of the middleground bass unfolding of motive (b). During the course of these transformations the melodic line does no more than rise a semitone to a neighbouring D♭, and the Kopfton remains static to the end of the movement, as it does for example in Elgar’s symphonies:[20] another ‘no’, this time to classical voice-leading archetypes, and one already established in early modernist contexts.

The dissonant sonorities, Nielsenesque rising-fifth structuring device, and Elgarian static Kopfton are unmistakably twentieth-century elements. However, the clear articulation of the form in its thematic and tonal aspects (with two massive perfect cadences in the tonic at bars 20 and 179, the ‘real’, that is, tonic, starting points of the P material) are more tightly ordered than in modernist works, and as the work progresses will become more markedly so.

Bitonality in the Second Movement

The slow movement’s bitonal opening gestures would not sound out of place in Shostakovich. In fact, however, they are not reflected on the background structure of the movement, but are instead an instance of a classical approach to motivic development. That is to say that the ‘modernist’ bitonality turns out to have a classical foundation. As Ex. 9.2(a) shows, the opening bars of the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony treat two pitch-class sets contrapuntally, though there is overlap between the two (the pitches D♭, E♭, and F). Each pitch-class set has a strong tonal feel: the bass cell outlines a rocking motion between F and D♭, essentially in F minor; the melody by contrast is in A minor/major with a distinctive Vaughan Williams ‘modal cadence’, ^3–^2–^1–♭^7–^1 (C–B♮–A♮–G–A♮, the first A♮ being decorated by a G♮ and an F) in bars 11–13. The presentation of first one line and then the other, and their metrical displacement, underlines the sense of distance between their tonalities.

 

 

Ex. 9.2. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4 (a) foreground sketch of second movement, bars 1–27
Ex. 9.2. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4 (a) foreground sketch of second movement, bars 1–27

 

 

(b) Middleground sketch of second movement exposition
(b) Middleground sketch of second movement exposition

 

 

(c) Middleground sketch of second movement
(c) Middleground sketch of second movement

 

 

(d) Second movement, original conclusion
(d) Second movement, original conclusion

 

 

Further metrical disruption is introduced after the third iteration of the six-note bass pattern, where its third and fourth notes are omitted to give the undecorated tetrachord underlining the pattern. Then a new six-note figure is set up at bar 14, but this time the tonal downbeat, the F that creates an ‘F-tonic coincidence’ (a moment where both voices coincide to produce part of the tonic F major triad) with the melodic voice, is the third note of the sequence instead of the first, which introduces a mild metrical complexity.

However, motive (b) merely decorates the opening dominant sonority, and there is a barely disguised linear descent from an accented upper-neighbour D♭

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through C and B♭ to the first main melody note, A♮ (bars 5–10). Furthermore, the melody’s Kopfton C can function as ^3 in A minor or ^5 in F major/minor, depending on point of view, and there are four F-tonic coincidences (indicated by boxes in Ex. 9.2 (a)) in the opening bars. All of this means that, despite the outwardly bitonal gestures of this opening, the tonic is not seriously undermined; in all its details this bitonal opening cements the centrality of F minor amid the f/a bitonality. In this movement’s opening Vaughan Williams presents ‘modernist’ bitonality at the same time as he reins it into an unusually clearly defined single tonal shape: he presents a parody of the normal procedure by converting bitonal tonal ‘nos’ into ‘yesses’.

The hexachord that provides the pitch content for the A-minor/major melody (6–22B) is transposed down a third at bar 38, and gains an additional pitch, to become 7–34, as shown in Ex. 9.2 (b). By this stage, although there are two distinct pitch-class sets in operation in the counterpoint, all sense of bitonality has been lost. Even the original rocking between F and D♭ in the bass has been subsumed into an exposition-long rumination on the same hexatonic system that drove the first-movement recapitulation, and which contains all four major and minor triads on F and D♭. Here, then, we have a ‘bitonality’ which has two pitch-class sets with overlapping pitches and which dissolves into a single tonal identity while retaining the differentiation of pitch-class sets for the contrapuntal voices.

Ex. 9.2 (c), which graphs the entire movement, shows at a glance the localization of the effect of the bitonality introduced by the A minor/major melody. Still, as the smaller stave above the main stave also indicates, Vaughan Williams does not waste its motivic potential. Its play between C and C♯/D♭ provides middleground structures colouring important moments of punctuation, first on F major (at bar 38) and then on F minor (at bar 90)—the introduction of the S1 materials and the start of the recapitulation respectively. Thus the first ‘modernist’ gesture of the work, the first melodic note, is worked subtly into the ‘yes’/‘no’ play of bitonality and tonality and its parodistic nature begins to reveal itself.

The movement makes extensive use of possibilities suggested by motives (a) and (b). Most obviously, motive (b) operates as an invocatory gesture: as at the opening, at bars 50–57, and in the short development section (bars 84–90), where it is used to equally divide an octave (C–E♮–A♭–C). In addition to a number of passing melodic appearances, motive (a) is used strikingly to underlay the last

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variegated statement of S2 in bars 131–5, with the effect of decorating an upper-neighbour G♭ in the bass (connecting Fs in bars 130 and 136).[21]

Here Vaughan Williams originally completed the F-Ursatz by descending ♭^3–^2–^1 in the flute line, as shown in Ex. 9.2(d). The F major/minor modal mixture remains, but the contrapuntal tension is dissolved. Vaughan Williams’s own 1937 recording of the symphony is the only one to play the final F, with its remarkable sense of closure.[22] At some point before Boult’s 1953 recording, Vaughan Williams had a change of heart. Either he later forgot having communicated it privately to Boult, or Boult made the change himself and Vaughan Williams subsequently thought that the idea was his own. Whatever the explanation, Vaughan Williams changed the last note of the movement, and so denied the Urlinie a descent beyond ♭^3. In a letter to Boult of 2 June 1956 concerning revisions to the Fourth Symphony, the composer wrote ‘I am not quite sure about the final note of the second movement. I have always felt that F was wrong, & the Lord came down one day and told me that it ought to be E natural’.[23] In a movement that parodies modernist bitonality by reshaping it for monotonal ends, this denial of tonal closure does not convert the movement into a modernist one at a stroke, but it adds spice and a final parodistic feint at the model—a touch of antic humour.

Stasis in the Third Movement

One of the possibilities open to early-modernist symphonic composers in the years around 1900 was by some means to subvert the Beethovenian model of tonal closure as redemption. To take just two examples, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony denies major-mode closure in the finale, and Elgar’s First Symphony brings back the ‘Ideal Call’ that had opened the work yet had been rendered impotent during its course. In his Fourth Symphony Vaughan Williams does not choose either of these possibilities. Rather he links his third and fourth movements through a passage of transition that clearly alludes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and brings the work to a conclusion which, although ostensibly grim and hopeless, in fact reinstates a sense of teleology that is as classical as Beethoven’s. The motivic unity and the unifying power of strictly applied teleology make this symphony, on balance, whole rather than fragmented, closed rather than open, containing more ‘yesses’ than ‘nos’, and classical rather than modern. But the balance never wholly tips, and the symphony gives in neither to one archetype nor another. The concluding pair of movements represent the culmination of Vaughan Williams’s parodistic mingling of classical and modernist processes.

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The scherzo is simpler than the first two movements; one has the sense that its intention is to discourage lingering reflection and act as a tension-building prelude to the more substantial finale. Motivically it relies heavily on development of motives (a) and (b), and tonally it clings to chords ♯vi and i of F minor, a combination which provides organic justification (unnecessary in 1935, but offered in the spirit of parodistic imitation) for the finale’s overall tonal shape.[24] Formally it elaborates the ternary scherzo–trio form by the overlaying of a scherzo-like shape, ABACAB (omitting a final A, and with C returning in the transition to the finale), as can be seen from Ex. 9.3.

Unlike in the symphony’s other movements, the functions of motives (a) and (b) are here limited to the foreground. Motive (a) offers decoration of the middle voices at bars 5–7 and 78–80, but otherwise does not impinge on deeper structural levels. Motive (b), meanwhile, is used as a means of creating and distinguishing the material for the trio. The form that it takes at the opening, D–G–C–E♭–A♭, establishes its identity for the scherzo sections, namely as pitch-class set 5–20B (0, 1, 5, 7, 8). It returns in that form on low woodwind in bars 80–84. Creating a diversity-within-unity (typical of, though not limited to, classical composers) at the same time as changing the mood of motive (b) from thrusting modernist to tipsy, bucolic pentatonicism, Vaughan Williams redraws motive (b)’s rising contour in the trio section at bars 149–56 as F–B♭–E♭–A♭–D♭: pitch-class set 5–35 (0, 2, 4, 7, 9) (‘black-key’ pentatonic). Motive (b) dominates the transition to the finale. As has been the case throughout the symphony, its rising lines call out for the tonal commitment of a resolution, and the feeling is intensified by the insistent, metrically accelerating iterations of motive (a) from bar 316.

In terms of tonality the movement is noticeably static in comparison with the bitonal subtleties of the preceding slow movement. It rocks between chords of D minor and F minor (i and iii in d, or ♯vi and i in f). In the first scherzo section the downward motion between the chords is arrested half way by a passage on B major starting at bar 48. In the transition to the finale, the movement makes a tonal quip that follows the establishment of a dominant seventh over a trilling bass A/G♯ (from bar 284), but it is a classical not a modernist joke. When it appears to resolve in the opening bars of the finale, this has the quipping effect, shown in Ex. 9.3, of making the opening gesture of the finale falsely seem to establish D through a rising bass arpeggiation of the tonic chord, F–A–D, and a descending third from ^3 in the melody, F–E–D. But this opening motion is only a feint, and one that begins the finale’s engagement with the Beethovenian victory paradigm. This putative arrival of D is not the tonic: the bass quickly descends, largely by step, to the root of the F minor chord that will provide the real tonic from now on. (One aspect of this false D-tonic preparation that takes longer to shift, however, is the principal melodic pitch it establishes: an F that would have been ^3 in D minor

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Ex. 9.3. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, middleground sketch of third movement
Ex. 9.3. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, middleground sketch of third movement

 

 

Ex. 9.4. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, middleground sketch of fourth movement
Ex. 9.4. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, middleground sketch of fourth movement

 

 

(see Ex. 9.4). That melodic note is prolonged extensively through the finale.) This joke is classical because it operates within the rules of tonality and not in contradiction of them, as was the case in the symphony’s opening bars. A subtle shift has taken place during the last two movements, and the symphony enters its finale with a tonal mien.

Teleological Culmination in the Finale

The finale is the most formally intricate movement of the symphony, and it provides the motivic and tonal culmination of the work. Hitherto strong passages on the dominant have been notably absent from the symphony. After the opening 19 bars the first movement avoids the dominant altogether (one of its ‘no’ gestures against classical tonality); in the second movement the bass note C almost exclusively supports chord V6/4 in the middleground; and in the third movement a pseudo-dominant (v/D♮) is established in the transition to the finale only to be summarily dismissed two bars after its ostensible tonic closure. At last in the finale there will be a strong structural dominant. It combines motivic detail (the symphony’s omnipresent falling minor second motive, and a neighbouring motion from the second movement’s recapitulation) with tonal precedent (the focus on the symphony’s global ♯vi in the scherzo) to unfurl an elegant i–♯vi–vi–V–I design. There is in short a drawing-together of loose threads—quite unthinkable in a modernist work—that strongly argues for an essential classicism in this symphony and pulls off the stern ‘modernist’ mask to reveal a roguish grin beneath. It is because it mixes these stylistic messages so vigorously and unusually that I earlier called it a member of a small set of ‘neomodern’ compositions.

The Urlinie has had a similarly unorthodox treatment in the symphony, remaining static on ^5 in the first movement, and descending to ^3 in the second movement, where it remains (with modal mixture) throughout the third. Vaughan Williams’s choice of key relationships between the movements encourages us to hear the closing D♭ sonorities of the first movement drawn down as ♭vi–V to the dominant sonorities of the opening of the second. With the modification of the final note of the second movement (from F to E♮) a similar descending progression may be heard to the D of the third movement.[25] Finally, the link between the third and fourth movements is presented explicitly by means of the Beethovenian transition.

Formally speaking the finale has recourse to the early modernist archetype much used by Sibelius, Mahler, and Elgar in works or movements with a strong teleological dimension: the rotational sonata deformation.[26] In a rotational sonata-

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form movement, distinct thematic materials are ‘rotated’ in the same order, with developments, accretions, or omissions that can stretch the dimensions of each rotation considerably. What maintains the rotational sense is not the strict repetition of materials (remarkably consistent as that often is) but the end towards which they are cumulatively working—the telos whose motivic or harmonic identity is being slowly constructed as part of the main business of each rotation, and which will emerge at the end of the form.
In the finale of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony there are four complete rotations and a partial, abandoned fifth rotation, in which the movement’s and the symphony’s telos is realized. The form is summarized in Table 9.1; material taken from other movements, as in rotations 2, 4, and 5, is indicated by bold type.

Table 9.1 Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, rotational form of finale
Rotation Formal section Thematic material Bars
R1 Exposition P1 1–4, 15–19
P2 5–14, 20–37
P3 38–51
TR (based on P) 52–76
S 77–104
C 105–114
R2 Development P1 115–134
P2 135–167
P3 168–176
E (from first movement) 177–213
R3 Recapitulation P1 214–222
P2 223–236
S 246–265
C (based on S) 266–273
R4 P1 273–308
(parenthesis) Epilogo fugato F 309–353
R4 P2 354–366
P2 354–366
P3 367–379
S 380–399
C (based on S) 400–423
R5 Coda P1 424–443
P 444–455

Key

P = primary themes; S = secondary themes; TR = transitional material; C = closing material; E = episode in development; F = fugue subjects; P = primary theme from first movement

The primary materials, P1–P3, serve a range of formal and aesthetic functions. P1, the ‘false’ close into D minor followed by a rapid descent down the octave to F, is much used as motivic material in transitional and developmental sections but also serves as an indicator of formal junctures. Its forceful rhythmic shape, three long notes followed by shorter ones, is another evident allusion to the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. P2 is what Vaughan Williams called an ‘oompah’ accompaniment to a pompous and banal march subject based on a falling minor or major second. Together these opening themes sum up Vaughan Williams’s aesthetic in this movement, one that seems to refer to Beethoven in a deflated and at times sardonic spirit. In the end, however, the spirit is affirmatory, albeit an affirmation so defamiliarized by the tone of the musical materials that it can only be called parodistic. It would therefore be a mistake to stop examining the meaning of this stylistic reference at this point, because the principal irony of the movement is that, despite its superficial ‘failure’ to attain the Beethovenian heroic style, this movement does in the end offer a satisfactory tonal closure for the entire symphony, and by the most Beethovenian means possible—the teleological fulfilment of a motivic detail.

P3 has greater melodic sweep than the preceding ideas but is likewise composed of two falling and one rising minor second, F–G♭–D♭–C–G♭–F. This theme is in many ways the crucial symbol of the movement’s teleological purpose, and a summary of the symphony’s central questions. In its last four notes it combines into a single terse theme the two introductory gestures of the first movement, the falling seconds over chords v and i that create such an arresting and ‘modernist’-sounding opening. The framing Fs and intermediate G♭s create a significant closed upper-neighbour structure around the principal melodic note F. This figure features importantly in the movement’s middleground, and will provide the movement’s and the symphony’s playfully unorthodox structural close. It first featured in the middleground in the second movement’s recapitulation, but was implicit from the G♭–F motive in bar 20 of the first movement. The secondary and closing themes allow more light into the heretofore rather dense orchestral texture, and prolong the melodic F to the end of the exposition by use of a lower neighbour E♮ at bar 106.

[start of p. 193]

Rotation 2 and the development section open with a syncopated and extended restatement of P1, a major third higher than before. It is underpinned by a bass F♯ that is retained through the first part of the restatement of P2 from bar 135, before falling back to F♮, still in P2, at bar 144. So the F–G♭/F♯–F neighbouring figuration of P3 is projected for the first time onto the middleground. Accompanying motion in the melodic line from bar 77 to bar 214 (a span stretching from R1 to R3) creates a middleground parallelism for motive (a), as shown in Ex. 9.4, which demonstrates the derivation from it of the F–F♯/G♭–F motive (those notes being heard at bars 77, 165, and 214 respectively).

The recapitulation, R3, sets up the same groundwork as R1, but instead of descending two octaves to an F♯ the melodic line ultimately reaches F♮ at bar 309, the start of the fugal epilogue. The purpose of this simplification is to permit the unfolding of the regained A♮ from the third movement at bar 379. That note will function as the Kopfton of the finale, and will instigate the final close. The F–G♭/F♯–F neighbouring motion is now transferred to the bass (bars 309–46). The middleground melodic contour F–B♭–A♮–D between bars 309 and 367 is reminiscent of the almost identical motive-(b) progression in the bass of the first movement recapitulation (where the last note was D♭; see Ex. 9.1). Barely a single important middleground detail of the symphony is missed by the finale’s extraordinary display of tidying-up.

There is a disjunction between the start of R4 and the Epilogo fugato. R4 begins with the slightly nebulous return of P1 at bar 273, still sounding almost like the closing section of the recapitulation. The entry of the fugue subjects at bar 309 is a powerful formal interruption, and strictly speaking a parenthesis in the structure: it operates in a separate tonal space and could be lifted out of its place without disturbing the tonal configuration of the music on either side. This is another Beethovenian technique, discussed by William Kinderman,[27] and the intrusion of the fugue makes the coded allusion doubly appropriate. Motivically, however, this is all of a piece with the rest of the movement, and the contrapuntal pairing of motives (a) and (b) is the last obvious trick in a symphony so heavily dependent on the interplay of contrapuntal voices. It may even be intended to recall the fugal treatment of the exquisitely manipulable themes in the finale of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony.

Rotation 4 recomences with the return of P2 at bar 354, and proceeds in the now-familiar manner to S at bar 379. Here the principal key of the third movement is reached and the closural motion of the finale is stimulated. The melody rises to F from the Kopfton A♮, and then, with a final statement of P1 at bar 424 (the beginning of the later-to-be aborted fifth rotation), offers a final memory of the movement’s opening. The bass also skips to F and stays there for the explosive return of the

[start of p. 195]

first movement’s P theme at bar 444. Four bars into this brief but crucial cyclic return, the bass rises to D♭, to support a chord of D flat minor. That chord is the hexatonic pole of F, the major mode of the first movement’s tonic, and was used there to tonicize the work’s opening dissonant note, D flat. It is, indeed, the generating pitch of the entire ‘modernist’, ‘no’-generated artifice of this antic symphony. That raucous falling minor second, in both of its first-movement forms (and as summarized in the finale’s P3), D♭–C and G♭–F, clinches the entire symphony’s design. The work’s opening ‘nos’ are resoundingly countered by ‘yesses’: the last and wittiest of Vaughan Williams’s parodistic notes is struck. First the bass falls a semitone to the dominant root (bars 448–52, the structural bass note covered below by an obscuring F). Then, in the grandest gesture of the work, the melody creates a final, powerfully classicizing close out of the ‘modernist’ thought that had set the work on its course. G♭ becomes ♭^2 over an enriched dominant thirteenth chord, additively the most dissonant possible configuration for a chord that still has the basic classical function of stimulating a perfect cadence, and quits it in the final bar for a heavy thump on ^1 and the bare fifths of the tonic chord. Ex. 9.5 graphs the symphony’s single unified Ursatz to show at a glance how the complete structure operates.

Example 9.5 Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, middleground sketch of symphony
Example 9.5 Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4, middleground sketch of symphony

The work has two principal tonal motions, both hinging on ♯vi and vi. The first i–vi–V–I progression supports the prolongation of the Kopfton ^5; the second closes the Ursatz.[28] As in Elgar’s early-modernist style, the Ursatz is spread over four movements; unlike Elgar’s Ursatz, which ends in profound ambiguity, Vaughan Williams’s symphonic Ursatz in the Fourth Symphony composes a pair of tonal sentences that pose and affirmatively answer the classical question.

As with the cyclic recall of music from preceding movements in the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the return of the opening of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth has the effect of dismissing the concerns of the opening. In this powerful perfect cadence and long-delayed closure of the Ursatz that Michael Kennedy described as the ‘shake of a fist and a slammed door’, it is not hope, democracy, or peace that is snuffed out, regardless of the currently held views of this symphony: it is the aesthetic of modernism that is given the miss-in-baulk. I think that the correct response is to laugh.


  1. Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1980), 268.  ↩
  2. A good example is Calum MacDonald’s programme note for the BBC Proms performance on 24 July 2008, at the Royal Albert Hall, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2008/aboutthemusic/p10_vaughanwilliams.shtml (accessed 23 September 2008).  ↩
  3. Kennedy, Vaughan Williams, 265.  ↩
  4. Kennedy, Vaughan Williams, 247.  ↩
  5. Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), 124. The other classic example of a modernist holding this view is Milton Babbitt, ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’, High Fidelity 8/2 (1958), 38–40.  ↩
  6. Chris Walton, ‘Auf der Suche nach der Moderne in England’. In Otto Kolleritsch (ed.), Klischee und Wirklichkeit in der musikalischen Moderne, (Vienna: Universal, 1994).  ↩
  7. The Fourth Symphony situates itself by means of its formal and gestural technique with the ‘late modernism’ of the exactly contemporary First Symphony of Walton. For a discussion of that work and the relation of both symphonies to the general late-modernist movement in British art and literature, see J. P. E. Harper-Scott, ‘“Our True North”: Walton’s First Symphony, Sibelianism, and the Nationalization of Modernism in England’, Music & Letters 89/4 (2008), 562–89.  ↩
  8. A reception history of the symphony is beyond the scope of this essay. For a sample of contemporary reviews, see Kennedy, Vaughan Williams, 243–45.  ↩
  9. V. Kofi Agawu, Playing with Signs: a Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).  ↩
  10. Rudolf Stephan, ‘Zur Deutung von Strawinskys Neoklassizismus’. In Vom musikalischen Denken: Gesammelte Vorträge, ed. Rainer Damm, and Andreas Traub (Mainz: Schott, 1985), 244.  ↩
  11. ‘Die Parodie hat eben die wichtige, ganz neue Aufgabe, eine “automatische” Apperzeption der Musik zu verhindern’ (ibid.).  ↩
  12. Mozart could, for instance, use the musical topic of a march at one moment to signify an actual march (e.g. in an operatic situation in which a march is part of the action), in another to parody its meaning (e.g. the march-like “Non più andrai” from Le nozze di Figaro, whose martial character is a way of poking fun at the entirely unsoldierly Cherubino (Raymond Monelle, The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays (Princeton, N.J., and Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2000), 36),and in another merely to signify courtliness or ‘the opposite of Empfindsamkeit’ (e.g. in an abstract instrumental movement). Stravinsky could do all of those, but he could also add a self-conscious level of commentary on the entire preceding context, and thinking this through is part of the experience of neoclassical music.  ↩
  13. Geoffrey Chew, ‘Pastoral and Neoclassicism: A Reinterpretation of Auden’s and Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress”’, Cambridge Opera Journal 5/3 (1993), 257.  ↩
  14. Stephan, ‘Zur Deutung von Strawinskys Neoklassizismus’, 247.  ↩
  15. The Fourth Symphony is not the only work in which Vaughan Williams applied the aesthetic of ‘making strange’. As Daniel M. Grimley demonstrates elsewhere, in his Third Symphony and the Sinfonia Antartica Vaughan Williams radically rethinks the nineteenth-century view of landscape so that it ceases to be a site that vastly opens up human possibilities, and becomes instead a baleful emptiness that destroys meaning. See Daniel M. Grimley, ‘Landscape and Distance: Vaughan Williams, Modernism, and the Symphonic Pastoral’, in this volume, 147–74; and ‘Music, Ice, and the “Geometry of Fear”: the Landscapes of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica’, Musical Quarterly 91/1–2 (2008), 116–50.  ↩
  16. On a Schubertian precedent for Vaughan Williams’s technique here, see Richard L. Cohn, ‘As Wonderful as Star Clusters: Instruments for Gazing at Tonality in Schubert’, 19th-Century Music 22/3 (1999), 212–32.  ↩
  17. The decision to structure the movement largely on a sequence of rising fifths is reminiscent of the first movement of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. See David Fanning, Nielsen: Symphony No. 5, Cambridge Music Handbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).  ↩
  18. Allen Forte, The Structure of Atonal Music (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973).  ↩
  19. As described by Richard L. Cohn, there are four hexatonic systems, which he heuristically labels North, East, South, and West. The Fourth Symphony is largely concerned with the Eastern system: F, D, and A, each in major and minor. Relations between chords are effected by the movement of a single semitone between triads, so that the raising of the C in the chord of F minor produces D♭, the lowering of whose F to F♭ produces D♭ minor, the raising of whose A♭ to A♮ produces A major, and so on. The chromatic motions are named according to the note in the triad that changes: Leittonwechsel (leading-note change, i.e. from D♭ major to F minor), parallel (i.e. from F major to F minor), and relative (i.e. from F major to A minor).  ↩
  20. On this technique, see J. P. E. Harper-Scott, Edward Elgar, Modernist, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 65–106, and ‘Elgar’s Deconstruction of the Belle époque: Interlace Structures and the Second Symphony’, in J. P. E. Harper-Scott and Julian Rushton (eds.) Elgar Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 172–219.  ↩
  21. This F–G♭–F motion will become a special feature of the finale, both alone and ultimately in combination with a D♭–C figure.  ↩
  22. It can be heard on a Dutton Labs re-master, CDBP 9731.  ↩
  23. I am grateful to Michael Kennedy for allowing me to consult this letter.  ↩
  24. It will be recalled that D♮ has been an important tonal focus since the first movement development, when it emerged as the culmination of a middleground projection of motive (b).  ↩
  25. Both of these observations are also made by John Heighway, ‘Symphony No. 4: an Analytical Study’, Diagrams 3 and 4. John S. Heighway “Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor: An Analytical Study.” MMus thesis, University of London, 1983.  ↩
  26. These terms were coined by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy. For examples of their application see James A. Hepokoski, Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); ‘Fiery-Pulsed Libertine or Domestic Hero? Strauss’s Don Juan Reinvestigated’, in Bryan Gilliam (ed.), Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 135–75; and ‘Gaudery, Romance, and the ‘Welsh’ Tune: Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47’, in J. P. E. Harper-Scott and Julian Rushton (eds.), Elgar Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 135–71; Warren Darcy, ‘Bruckner’s Sonata Deformations’, in Timothy L. Jackson and Paul Hawkshaw (eds.), Bruckner Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 256–77 and ‘Rotational Form, Teleological Genesis, and Fantasy-Projection in the Slow Movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony’, 19th-Century Music 25/1 (2001), 49–74; Grimley, ‘Landscape and Distance’; and Harper-Scott, Edward Elgar, Modernist.  ↩
  27. See William Kinderman, ‘Thematic Contrast and Parenthetical Enclosure in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, Opp. 109 and 111’, in Harry Goldschmidt and George Knepler (eds.) Zu Beethoven (Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik, 1988), 43–59; and Beethoven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 12, 219–20, 222, 233, 240–3, 300–2, and 322.  ↩
  28. The unorthodox use of ♭^2 in place of ^2 is a consequence of the high power of the structural dominant, and a further indication of Vaughan Williams’s wit: the Ursatz is quite, but not wholly, classical. Certainly the un-modernist dominant function of the support for ♭^2 cannot be questioned. A further irregularity, which will frustrate only the most evangelical of orthodox Schenkerians, is the failure of the symphony to establish a clear obligatory register, or else having established one to close outside of it. I am not convinced that in music with complex orchestration (which allows a large range of registers to sound simply ‘melodic’, whichever absolute register they happen to have) a case can ever be made for obligatory register.  ↩
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