Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 6

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
Died August 26, 1958, in London
Composed in 1944–47, revised in 1950
Premiered on April 21, 1948, at Royal Albert Hall in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult
First Recording by ASO founder Leopold Stokowski conducting the New York Philharmonic on February 21, 1949
Performance Time: Approximately 33 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone), 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses.

“With regard to the last movement of my No. 6, I do NOT BELIEVE IN meanings and mottoes, as you know, but I think we can get in words nearest to the substance of my last movement in ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by [sic] a sleep.’” Despite its bluster, this declaration, made in 1956, hints at an inner narrative for the Sixth Symphony that the composer was loathe to reveal. After the premiere of the score in 1948, Vaughan Williams had vehemently disputed the British music critic Frank Howes’ description of the Sixth Symphony as a “war symphony.” Like many composers, Vaughan Williams wanted to have his aesthetic cake and eat it: he did not want to dictate to his listeners, but did not wish to disguise fully that the Sixth Symphony had “extra-musical” origins. During rehearsals for the premiere, Vaughan Williams confided to the pianist and composer Howard Ferguson, “I call [the symphony] the ‘The Big Three’”—“The Big Three” being Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt meeting at Yalta in 1945.

From the mid-1930s onward, Vaughan Williams, who was a veteran of the First World War and had witnessed the horrors of the trenches at first hand, watched with foreboding as Europe descended once again into madness. A firm internationalist in politics while a cultural nationalist at home, Vaughan Williams supported ardently the Federal Union, an organization that proposed a union “of free peoples under a common government” in order to effect the “prevention of war, the creation of prosperity, and the preservation and promotion of individual liberty.” In 1936, he composed his cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem, which is at once a plea for peace and a harrowing depiction of the disruption and destruction that follows inevitably in the wake of war. Two years later, Vaughan Williams visited Germany himself to accept, after much soul-searching, the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize. He was repulsed by what he saw in Nazi Germany and attempted fruitlessly to give the prize money to the Quaker relief agency for refugees. A short while later, because of his outspokenness against fascism, Vaughan Williams’ own music was banned by the Nazis. Even before this incident in Hamburg, Vaughan Williams was assisting Jewish refugees to safety, including the distinguished composer Robert Müller-Hartman and his family. He spent countless hours helping refugees resettle in Great Britain and canvassed others for financial assistance towards this goal. Characteristically, Vaughan Williams never spoke of these activities in later years—but by the mid-30s he knew exactly what was going on in Nazi Germany. By the outbreak of war in 1939, Vaughan Williams was well aware of the price that he would pay for such activities if the Nazis succeeded in conquering Britain. (The British government supplied him and other leading anti-fascist cultural figures with pills of quick-acting poison that were to be taken if the Nazis managed to cross the channel.)

As a child of the turbulent last century, it is hardly surprising that at least four of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, the Third (1921) through the Sixth (1947), are touched by warfare in some fashion. Indeed, certain commentators have viewed the tormented and dissonant Fourth Symphony (1934) as a searing critique of the claims of nineteenth-century idealism—an idealism that failed decisively in the last century—as embodied in the triumphalism of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Vaughan Williams ironically takes Beethoven’s formal plan as a model while negating its trajectory from darkness to light: the British composer’s Fourth Symphony ends with the same howl of fury with which it began.

Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony goes even further than the Fourth in rejecting nineteenth-century symphonic rhetoric. In his Sixth Symphony, which is cast in four movements played without pause, Vaughan Williams begins with a scream of protest and ends, like Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and Mahler’s Ninth symphonies, with a somber slow movement. Unlike Tchaikovsky or Mahler, however, Vaughan Williams’ finale is far from autobiographical: it is a chillingly impersonal Epilogue for the human race. The lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (IV, i) that Vaughan Williams cited as a key to the “substance” of the fourth movement are part of a beautiful but bleak speech by Prospero that contains lines that must have seemed agonizingly pertinent at the beginning of the atomic age: “The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself,/ Ye all which it inherit/Shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded/Leave not a rack behind.” In a choral setting of this text composed in 1951, Vaughan Williams makes the connection between these words and his symphony explicit by quoting the haunting final vacillating chords of the tenebrous Epilogue at the words “shall dissolve.”

But the finale is hardly the only movement of the Sixth Symphony to contain music that depicts the grinding force of human self-destruction. The harrowing second movement is filled with reminiscences drawn from the brutal movement entitled “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, Op. 32 (1916). As Holst was his closest friend and colleague, Vaughan Williams surely knew that “Mars” had been finished immediately before the start of the First World War. Furthermore, Vaughan Williams inserted brass fanfares into the scherzo that he had used previously to depict the Nazi “Siegfried” bombers in his score for the British propaganda film, Costal Command (1942). The trio of this scherzo, with the saxophone soloist playing a diabolical riff on “Swanee River,” was inspired by the deaths of the members of a jazz band who perished in the bombing of an underground nightclub, the Café de Paris, during the Blitz. Only after suggesting the brutality of this slaughter—an incident that forms the climax of novelist Anthony Powell’s roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time—the music of the scherzo dissolves into near silence as Vaughan Williams ushers his listeners into the uncanny realm of the Epilogue, a limbo in which survivors can only lament: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.