Even in his mid-eighties, Vaughan Williams led an unusually active life. He traveled to Majorca, Austria, Italy, and, when at home in England, he had a busy round of concerts, festival appearances, and composing. His last symphony, the Ninth, was begun during his stay in Majorca, and completed back in England in 1957. It was given its premiere at London's Royal Albert Hall, with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on April 2, 1958. Coincidentally, Vaughan Williams' last public appearance was at another Royal Albert Hall performance of the Ninth four months later. And on August 26, 1958, three weeks after that appearance, Sir Adrian Boult was to have recorded the Ninth with the BBC Symphony. Those plans were abandoned as news was received of Vaughan Williams' death that morning at age 86.
The Symphony No. 9 has at best a mixed reputation. Some see in it evidence of Vaughan Williams' failing powers late in his career, of a reliance on the same old tricks, so to speak. Certainly the work is an enigmatic one. There are many abrupt changes of mood and texture, and those textures are enlivened by the presence of a trio of saxophones and, for the first time in a Vaughan Williams symphony, a flügelhorn. Two significant influences on the tone of the Ninth should be noted. One is Vaughan Williams' own Symphony No. 6 of about a decade earlier. The other important influence is Thomas Hardy, specifically the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The opening movement of the Ninth was, in fact, originally called "Wessex Prelude," a reference to a location in many of Hardy's novels.
The first movement, marked Moderato maestoso, opens mysteriously but turbulently. A trio of saxophones later blares away in a reminiscence of the Symphony No. 6. Tension increases, and the climax of the movement is followed by a more songful variant of the turbulent opening, with solo violin and strumming harp. A flügelhorn (once described by Vaughan Williams as "this beautiful and neglected instrument") sings briefly, and a strange, hushed coda features the return of the saxophones.
The flügelhorn becomes more prominent in the second movement, Andante sostenuto. Its song is threatened by a slightly sardonic martial figure that keeps attempting to break through. A more poignant section, thought by some to be a reference to Tess, is brought to a halt by the tolling of a bell and the return of the martial music. This beautifully scored and mercurial movement ends poignantly, but the spell is abruptly broken by the onset of the third-movement Scherzo. A jaunty but dark little tune, first presented and later elaborated on by the three saxophones, is eventually elaborated and polyphonically developed by the full orchestra. After several magical little interludes, the three saxophones return at the close.
This leads into the remarkable final movement, Andante tranquillo, with its variety of themes, moods, and passing references to the first three movements. Delicately scored, the movement begins polyphonically in the strings, and develops in a rhapsodic fashion with many sparse, chamber-like textures. The counterpoint in the strings becomes stormy and builds to a grandiose peroration, and after three loud and quickly fading E major chords, harp glissandos and a hint of saxophone are heard as the strings fade to silence.