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.


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

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    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 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 / EMI Music Distribution 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