Music for a Time of War: Vaughan William’s Fourth Symphony

The opening of the Fourth Symphony of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams comes as quite a shock for listeners expecting music of solace and beauty, such as the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis or his many lovely folk-song settings.  This symphony from 1934 is intensely dramatic, and the  beginning is downright brutal.  This work will be featured this evening on Symphony at 7.

The title for this post, “Music for a Time of War,” comes from the new CD of the same name from Pentatone Classics featuring The Oregon Symphony led by Carlos Kalmar.  In addition to the symphony by Vaughan Williams, the disc contains Charles Ives’, The Unanswered Question, John Adams’ The Wound Dresser, and Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, so it’s not hard to understand the title of the CD.  The Oregon Symphony performed this program at its Carnegie Hall debut in last year’s Spring for Music Festival in New York, and it was said to be a highlight of the event.

The interesting thing is that the composer disavowed any overt program for his Fourth Symphony, even though reviewers at the time of its first performances in England in 1935 felt it must be about the fear of war, or a premonition of some sort.  Hitler had come to power in Germany, and international tensions were beginning to increase.  Oddly perhaps, Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony, written just after the First World War, and his Fifth Symphony, composed during the Second World War, are both serene and predominantly peaceful works.

However you choose to interpret Symphony No. 4 in f minor from this great English composer of the 20th Century, I think you’ll be surprised by the vehemence and energy of this piece.  You will have the opportunity to hear for yourself this evening on Symphony at 7.

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