Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony No. 8 in D minor

    Description by Chris Morrison

    The shortest and probably the most lighthearted of his nine symphonies, Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 8 was first performed on May 2, 1956, at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, to whom the work is dedicated. Vaughan Williams was 83 years old at this point, and the variety and quality of his musical output showed no signs of flagging. Indeed, the composer was bringing new elements, new textures, and emotions into his work. A seemingly uncomplicated work, the Symphony No. 8 exhibits a slightly dark undercurrent, and an enigmatic quality that was made even more manifest in the Symphony No. 9 of the composer's final year, 1958.

    The first movement of the Eighth is a Fantasia, subtitled "Variazioni senza thema" (Variations without a Theme). Vaughan Williams perhaps more accurately, described the movement as "Seven variations in search of a theme." It opens with one of the main elements of the movement, a querulous four-note phrase on which the flute elaborates, accompanied by glistening percussion. The music is restless, by turns stormy and lyrical. A jaunty, sardonic episode leads into the coda, in which flute, bassoon, and trumpet dance around the "theme," with harp and vibraphone providing a shimmering backdrop.

    The woodwinds and brass are highlighted in the second movement, marked Scherzo alla marcia. It is a curious and slightly creepy march, with a more reflective, waltz-like central section, calling Stravinsky to mind in the combinations of textures and the not-quite-serious attitude. The third movement, Cavatina, is for strings only, unfolding itself in a rich polyphonic fabric. It sounds superficially like the more familiar Vaughan Williams works for string orchestra (such as the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis or The Lark Ascending), but here there is a slight pall of anxiety and restlessness over even the most mellifluous passages.

    Much the same might be said of the final movement, Toccata, in which the orchestra is joined by five percussionists playing, as Vaughan Williams put it, "all the 'phones and 'spiels known to the composer." One can hear preliminary evidence of this interest in percussion instruments in the Christmas cantata Hodie (1948), and it is said that Vaughan Williams was inspired by a performance of Puccini's Turandot to include percussion in the finale of the Symphony No. 8. The percussion by no means dominates the texture, however, but supports the diverse goings-on in the rest of the orchestra. The movement is certainly extroverted, but once again there is a darker presence in the music. Perhaps the composer had it right when he called the Toccata "a rather sinister exordium." A grand and noisy climax brings the work to a close.


    1. Fantasia (Variazioni senza Tema). Moderato - Presto - Andante sostenuto - Allegretto - Andante non troppo- Allegro vivace - And
    2. Scherzo alla marcia (per stromenti a fiato). Allegro alla marcia - Andante - Tempo primo (Allegro)
    3. Cavatina (per stromenti ad arco). Lento espressivo
    4. Toccata. Moderato Maestoso

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 RCA Red Seal 88875126952
    2016 Urania WS 121262
    2016 Onyx / Onyx Classics ONYX 4155
    2015 London Philharmonic Orchestra / LPO LPO 0082
    2014 Melodiya MELCD 1002170
    2013 Halle Concerts Society CDHLL 7533
    2011 EMI Classics
    2010 West Hill Radio Archives 6033
    2010 Warner Classics
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920663
    2008 Naxos 8506020
    2007 Document 223602
    2005 BBC Legends / BBC Music 41652
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 575309
    2004 Decca 000213202
    2004 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243586026
    2004 RCA Red Seal 55708
    2003 Warner Classics
    2003 Chandos 5016
    2003 Chandos 10103
    2003 EMI Music Distribution 575760
    2003 EMI Classics
    2002 BBC Music 4100
    2002 Decca 468490
    2001 Aura Classics 0181
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 640212A
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 57086
    2000 EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution 73924
    1999 Karussell 461116
    1998 Naxos 550737
    1997 BELART 461442
    1997 Teldec 17047
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 64798
    1994 Teldec 90858
    1994 EMI Music Distribution 65458
    1992 Chandos 8828
    1992 Chandos 9087-91
    1990 RCA 60590
    Dutton Laboratories 1021
    Music & Arts 770
    EMI Music Distribution 747217
    RCA Victor Red Seal 61196
    Carlton / IMP BBC Radio Classics 91312
    EMI Music Distribution 1
    RCA Victor Red Seal 61460