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Out of the Box: Vaughan Williams' "A Pastoral Symphony"

Image of Jean-Baptiste Corot's 1826 "Bridge at Narni"
Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Baptiste Corot's 1826 "Bridge at Narni"

Listen to music that is hewn from trauma, and serves both as a salve for troubled times and a reminder that history is always there to teach us. 

WHAT: Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonies No. 3 & 4 / BBC Symphony Orchestra & Martin Brabbins

MUST LISTEN: Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 3 "A Pastoral Symphony" 

WHY THIS MUSIC: It's a stunningly beautiful work, with the grace and beauty of earlier Vaughan Williams pieces like The Lark Ascending, but imbued with the deep sadness of his experiences during World War I.

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As we enter a new round of “The Twenties,” let's look back to music written during the previous “Twenties.” It just so happens that there is a fantastic new recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 1921 A Pastoral Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from Hyperion Records.

Despite the title, Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony is, as he put it, “wartime music.” Unlike the scenic, Beatrix Potter-like visions that a title like "pastoral" usually brings to mind, Vaughan Williams was instead reflecting on his service as an ambulance driver for the first three years of World War I when he wrote his third symphony. “A great deal of [the symphony] was incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset,” he wrote to a friend in 1938. “It's not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted."

Vaughan Williams was 42 when World War I broke out, and took a posting in the Royal Army Medical Corps*, which brought him face to face with some of the most brutal realities of the conflict. Night after night it was his duty to drive and wander into no-man’s land to retrieve wounded soldiers in order to cart them back to the hospitals at the rear. It was terrible, difficult work, placing him in harm’s way on a regular basis.

As it did with everyone who served, the War left a powerful physical and emotional mark on Vaughan Williams. And the music he wrote directly following his service – both this Pastoral Symphony, and his cantata Dona Nobis Pacem - is often seen as a response to his experiences.

There is a lot of pre-war Vaughan Williams in his pastoral symphony. It is, like The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, very scenic and lush. But it is less hopeful and nostalgic. Instead the work is mournful and contemplative, almost as though it is a memorial for the quiet war-torn French countryside more than it is a celebration of the English countryside of Vaughan Williams’s youth.

I find that the piece, in its sobriety, is very healing. I like to think that it served as a salve for the composer, and for those who first heard it. While you listen, keep an ear out for the trumpets in the second movement, which are meant to invoke the bugle calls that Vaughan Williams would have heard coming over the trenches. And keep an ear out for the angelic soprano vocalise that bookends the fourth movement.

It’s been a turbulent start to this new decade, but hopefully this music will provide an avenue for peace and reflection for you, as much as it did for Vaughan Williams when he wrote it.

Picture of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams from 1920
Credit E.O. Hoppé / Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons
The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, c. 1920

Read or download the liner notes for this album at the Hyperion Records website

*The Military Corps was not Vaughan Williams's only posting. As the war progressed, he was enlisted as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery, responsible for the firing of 60-pounder canons (aptly named the “big guns”). It was far from back-breaking work as a medical orderly, but it was ear-shattering work, and it is the two years in this posting that are widely credited for the composer’s total hearing loss by the end of his life. To read more about Vaughan Williams and other First World War composers, visit the "War Composers" website

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.