Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony No. 5 in D major

    Description by Chris Morrison

    During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Vaughan Williams was occupied with a wide variety of musical projects. His earliest film scores date from this time, such as those for The 49th Parallel (1940) and Coastal Command (1942). He also contributed to the war effort with works like the Five Wartime Hymns (1942) and the pageant England's Pleasant Land (1938); the latter work incorporates early sketches for the Symphony No. 5. There was also the ongoing labor on the opera/morality play The Pilgrim's Progress. Some incidental commissions also came his way, like the Serenade to Music written for Sir Henry Wood's golden jubilee as a conductor (1938).

    And there was the Symphony No. 5, largely written over the years 1938 to 1943. Vaughan Williams himself conducted the London Philharmonic in the work's first performance at a Royal Albert Hall Promenade concert on June 24, 1943. A decade separates this symphony and its predecessor, and a work more unlike the violent and tumultuous Symphony No. 4 would be hard to imagine. Vaughan Williams scholar Michael Kennedy has called the Fifth the "symphony of the celestial city," which perhaps gives some indication of the work's radiance and lyricism.

    The Symphony No. 5 was dedicated to Jean Sibelius, and the latter's own Symphony No. 5 is evoked in the serene and mysterious opening Preludio. French horns sound out in D major over a low C in the strings, an ambiguity that is partly resolved when a radiant E major emerges in the strings. There are some darker moments during the more animated development section, but the opening horn calls return, and the main melody is heroically sounded out with brass and tympani. The epilogue is more ambivalent, wandering sadly toward a haunting and uncertain ending. The second movement, Scherzo, is a sardonic little dance that emerges out of swirling strings. Blasts from the brass section occasionally interrupt the tune. As turbulent as the music gets, the scoring is light and nimble throughout. The music relaxes toward the end of the movement, perhaps in anticipation of what is to follow.

    The Symphony No. 5 derives some of its thematic content from the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, but only in the third movement "Romanza" is the connection between opera and symphony dramatically apparent. In the manuscript score, Vaughan Williams included a brief quotation from Bunyan's work: "Upon this place stood a cross, and a little below a sepulchre. Then he said: 'He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.'" The movement begins mysteriously, as a stately chorale-like theme is presented. Woodwinds, particularly English horn and oboe, introduce a new theme (taken from Act One, Scene Two of the opera). The music becomes temporarily blustery, but the chorale theme returns and builds to a noble climax. A solo violin leads into the hushed and poignant coda. Like the Brahms Symphony No. 4, the Vaughan Williams Fifth ends with a Passacaglia; the stately theme is heard in the low strings at first, and is developed by the rest of the orchestra. Variations on the passacaglia theme range from the playful to the jubilant to the restive. A big, brass-laden climax leads to a return of the symphony's opening French horn call, this time in a more assertive guise. The strings reflect on motifs from the first movement, with the passacaglia theme lurking nearby, and fade into a very peaceful and beautiful ending to what some have called Vaughan Williams' greatest symphony.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Preludio. Moderato
    2. Scherzo. Presto
    3. Romanza. Lento
    4. Passacaglia. Moderato

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2020
    Hyperion
    CDA 68325
    2020
    BIS
    BIS 2367
    2018
    Onyx
    ONYX 4184
    2016
    RCA Red Seal
    88875126952
    2016
    Coviello Classics
    COV 91515
    2016
    Albion
    ALBCD 031
    2016
    Urania / Urania Records
    WS 121160
    2014
    Melodiya
    MELCD 1002170
    2013
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099998475
    2013
    Halle Concerts Society
    CDHLL 7533
    2013
    London Philharmonic Orchestra / LPO
    LPO 0072
    2013
    Decca
    4785692
    2013
    Decca
    2012
    PentaTone Classics
    PTC 5186471
    2012
    Dutton Laboratories
    CDLX 7286
    2011
    Collins Classics
    RET0006
    2011
    EMI Classics
    2010
    Decca
    2010
    Warner Classics
    2008
    Telarc Distribution
    80738
    2008
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099921614
    2008
    EMI Classics
    2008
    SOMM
    71
    2008
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099921615
    2008
    EMI Classics
    2008
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099920663
    2008
    Naxos
    8506020
    2007
    Telarc Distribution
    60676
    2007
    Telarc Distribution
    80676
    2007
    Guild Historical
    2324
    2005
    Erato
    2005
    EMI Classics
    2005
    EMI Music Distribution
    575311
    2004
    Decca
    000213202
    2004
    EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics
    7243586026
    2004
    Avid
    599
    2004
    RCA Red Seal
    55708
    2003
    Past Perfect
    205633
    2003
    EMI Music Distribution
    575760
    2003
    Chandos
    5004
    2002
    EMI Music Distribution
    75790
    2002
    Dutton Laboratories
    9731
    2001
    Virgin
    61925
    2000
    EMI Classics
    73924
    1999
    Pearl
    GEMMCD 0062
    1999
    Karussell
    461118
    1999
    Naxos
    8 550738
    1999
    Chandos
    9666
    1998
    Decca
    458357
    1997
    BELART
    461442
    1997
    Dutton Laboratories
    8011
    1997
    Teldec
    17047
    1996
    EMI Music Distribution
    55487
    1995
    EMI Music Distribution
    65110
    1995
    EMI Music Distribution
    21094
    1995
    EMI Classics
    1994
    EMI Music Distribution
    65458
    1993
    Teldec
    90844
    1992
    RCA Victor Red Seal
    60556
    1992
    Chandos
    8554
    1992
    Chandos
    9087-91
    1991
    EMI Music Distribution
    640182A
    1990
    RCA
    60586
    1990
    Telarc Distribution
    80158
    1987
    EMI Music Distribution
    CD-EMX9512
    Past Perfect
    205638
    IMP Classics
    9125
    Virgin
    90733
    EMI Classics
    55371
    Collins Records
    12022
    BBC Music
    294
    EMI Music Distribution
    1
    Virgin
    61105
    RCA Victor Red Seal
    61460