In her study of post-traumatic stress disorder, Trauma and Recovery, psychologist Judith Lewis Herman notes that it may take veterans many years to process the horror they have witnessed in combat. The returning veteran initially seeks peace and regularity, as the natural response of violent indignation is put off as being too painful. In the case of Ralph Vaughan Williams, his searing experiences as a middle-aged stretcher-bearer and later as an artillery officer in the trenches of the First World War cast a shadow over his life thereafter. In the first years after his demobilization in 1919, he composed a series of scores—the “Pastoral” Symphony, the Mass in G minor and the one-act opera Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains—beneath whose deceptively placid surfaces lies muted but excruciating grief. Only in the1930s, when it seemed as if no one recalled the bitter lessons of the First World War, did Vaughan Williams explode with the controlled fury of his galvanic Fourth Symphony.
The genesis of the Symphony was deceptively nonchalant: one day in 1931 over breakfast, Vaughan Williams read a critic’s description of a typically “modern” symphony. Some details of the critic’s review ignited a spark in his imagination. (The review’s subject may well have been the Second Symphony of Vladimir Dukelsky, who under the pseudonym “Vernon Duke” would later write the song “April in Paris.”) Whatever the initial inspiration, the modernist aesthetic of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony arises from an ambivalent dialogue with the symphonic tradition of Beethoven.
Vaughan Williams testified that he derived the “opening of my F-minor Symphony deliberately from the finale of [Beethoven’s] Ninth Symphony.” With this seemingly casual remark, the composer inadvertently points up the work’s nihilistic despair. As Oliver Neighbour has observed, “whereas Beethoven is able to dismiss his cacophony and turn to a vision of the brotherhood of man, Vaughan Williams’s own Symphony ends where it began.” Furthermore, the spectral transition between the scherzo and finale is indebted to a similar transition passage in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but with a devastating difference: out of the darkness, Beethoven’s transition leads to triumph; Vaughan Williams’s transition leads to a minatory parody of a triumphal march.
Like the music of Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional composer in Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony is a negation of the optimistic humanism proclaimed in the triumphant symphonic narratives of Beethoven and his successors. Vaughan Williams would later discourage speculation by critics who, gifted with the clarity of hindsight, asserted that this work was a prophecy of the Second World War; sensible composers rarely cast themselves as seers. But the Fourth Symphony is surely a rebuke to anyone who, in 1931, sought to ignore the dark forces unleashed by the First World War. Answering those who criticized him for the uncompromisingly defiant message of this Symphony, Vaughan Williams said simply, “I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant.”