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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958). Symphony No. 3 “A Pastoral Symphony” (1921)

Hi, it’s Kile Smith, and it’s the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. Every month we have a new podcast on SoundCloud or Spotify; type in “Fleisher Discoveries” and you’ll find every one of our podcasts.

Before we get started on today’s piece, I want to follow up on last month’s show, where we heard John Sebastian performing the Harmonica Concerto of Nicolas Tcherepnin. Got a lot of good feedback on that, including from Karl outside of Philadelphia, who emailed me at kile@kilesmith.com. Karl wrote in to say, “Nice you gave some attention to the harmonica—a fine solo instrument—as well as to the sensational Tcherepnin family. Boy, those guys had chops. What a loss that their works aren’t more heard.” Thanks, Karl, and you’re right, one of the reasons for Fleisher Discoveries is to hear composers we don’t normally hear, and in this case, solo instruments we wouldn’t necessarily associate with orchestral or even classical music.

And speaking of which, check out Gary Galván playing the Fleisher Collection theremin on YouTube! Yes, there’s music for theremin in the Fleisher Collection, the Collection actually owns a theremin, and you can see and hear Gary playing it by going to the link, just go to the Fleisher Collection on Facebook or to my website, kilesmith.com, and find it there. The theremin gives off those spooky sounds in science fiction movies and also in one Beach Boys song and one Jerry Lewis movie, but go to the link for the history behind the instrument and its fascinating creator, Leon Theremin.

We will dip into the standard repertoire today, well, kind of, with a Vaughan Williams symphony, his Third. I say, “kind of” in the standard repertoire because while everyone will nod knowingly if you say “Vaughan Williams Symphony,” these works aren’t actually played all that much in the United States, but if they are, certainly the Third isn’t, and I’ve often wondered why.

His music is beautiful of course, I think most people would agree, but his symphonies are a bit on the difficult side for many orchestras. However, many symphonies are difficult, and even community orchestras take on quite difficult repertoire. His “Sea” Symphony and “London” Symphony are probably played more often than his Third, the “Pastoral” Symphony, but that also has a descriptive title, so I don’t think that’s any answer.

It may be that the Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 3, the “Pastoral” Symphony, suffers from the picture our minds conjure when I say the Ralph Vaughan Williams “Pastoral” Symphony: yet another languid, English, slow, rolling-fields-to-the-horizon kind of orchestral piece. The conductor Hugh Allen, who was a friend of the composer, thought it sounded like Vaughan Williams “rolling over and over in a ploughed field on a wet day,” and composer Peter Warlock described it as “just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate.” But to be fair, Warlock was talking about what he thought was a tendency in Vaughan Williams’s music; he actually thought the Third was one of the best English symphonies of the 20th century.

But I always think of John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, jabbering on to a man he doesn’t realize is dead in that episode “The Kipper and The Corpse.” In the middle of his complaint about car strikes he expresses his thoughts about English classical music this way:

[Clip from Fawlty Towers, episode “The Kipper And The Corpse”: Basil Fawlty: “Here we are. Another car strike, marvelous, isn’t it? Taxpayers paying millions each year to get the money to go on strike. It’s called socialism. Well, if they don’t like making cars, why don’t they get themselves another bloody job designing cathedrals or composing violin concertos. The British Leyland Concerto, in four movements, all of them slow, with a four-hour tea break in between.”]

Basil puts the cliché succinctly, but what I never realized is that he took that phrase from Vaughan Williams himself, who was making fun of himself, making fun of, in fact, this Third Symphony, the Pastoral, which the composer once described as “four movements, all of them slow.” So good for you, John Cleese, with that reference! But Vaughan Williams did write once that the work isn’t “really Lambkins frisking … as most people take for granted,” so even Ralph Vaughan Williams was aware of the popular but false picture of his music.

And the third movement of the symphony, to be fair, isn’t really all that slow.

So what is his Third Symphony about, if not a romantic view of the English countryside? Actually, it’s about France. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s connection to that country began in 1908, when he traveled there to study with Maurice Ravel.

This is what the Pastoral Symphony

is about. It isn’t lambkins frisking…

He was already in his mid-30s, had already a career that was being noticed, with In the Fen Country and the Norfolk Rhapsody to his credit. He had a doctorate from Cambridge, he had studied with Charles Villiers Stanford, with Hubert Parry, and during his 1897 honeymoon in Germany, he’d studied with Max Bruch. His folk song collecting and arranging was being noticed, as was his editorship of The English Hymnal. This was all an important formation for his composing, and he said about the hymnal, “two years of close association with some of the best (as well as some of the worst) tunes in the world was a better musical education than any amount of sonatas and fugues.” So he was on his way.

But he was unsatisfied as a composer. He chafed against the Teutonic musical upbringing of his formal education under Stanford, and in fact had continuing arguments with him about that very thing. He loved English folk music of course, and its very non-European modalism, but felt he was floundering.

Ravel, three years younger than Vaughan Williams, was the perfect tonic for him, but only after a first bump in the road. Ravel told him he should write a little minuet in the style of Mozart, maybe to help lighten textures, maybe for some other reason, but Vaughan Williams was having none of it. “Look here,” Vaughan Williams said, “I have given up my time, my work, my friends and my career to come here and learn from you and I am not going to write ‘a little Minuet in the style of Mozart.’” Ravel must’ve loved the push-back, because he remembered him fondly, they remained friends for long after, and Ravel said that Vaughan Williams was the only student he ever had who didn’t try to write like Ravel.

He did open Vaughan Williams’s eyes to a new way of orchestrating, to paint in points of color, rather than in lines, and that seemed to be the liberation Vaughan Williams needed. It certainly is evident in the Pastoral Symphony.

But back to France. August 1914 came and with it the First World War. Vaughan Williams was 42 and could have sat it out but enlisted and in 1916 was in the ambulance corps, in France, and we can only imagine the horrors he witnessed daily. There was nothing good about the war in his view, it took the lives of friends, of musicians he knew, of the promising composer George Butterworth.

This is what the Pastoral Symphony is about. It isn’t lambkins frisking, “It’s really wartime music,” Vaughan Williams said, “a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon … and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful … landscape in the sunset.”

If we see France, its war-torn landscape, over a hill, in the sunset, surrounded by dead men and dead horses, if we hear the lone bugle, and the solitary figure on a country road singing a meandering, sad but lovely tune, then we have really heard the Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 3, the Pastoral.

André Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra on Fleisher Discoveries. Opening and closing the last movement is a wordless song for soprano or tenor and in this recording soprano Heather Harper is the soloist. The Third Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony, of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

[Ralph Vaughan Williams. Symphony No. 3 “A Pastoral Symphony”]

The Pastoral Symphony, the Third Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Heather Harper was the soloist in that fourth movement. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by André Previn. World War I, seen through the eyes of someone who didn’t have to be there, but who enlisted in his 40s, drove an ambulance, saw the unspeakable evil of war in another country, and put his feelings about it into this music. The fields of France in A Pastoral Symphony of Vaughan Williams.

People really didn’t start to catch on about this Third Symphony until much later. He completed it in 1921, it premiered in 1922, he wouldn’t write another symphony until the mid-’30s, but it wasn’t until World War II and later that the message of the Pastoral really started to hit home. It truly is one of the powerful symphonies of the 20th century.

This is Fleisher Discoveries, and I’m Kile Smith, and I do like hearing from you! Send me an email, kile@kilesmith.com, check me out on Facebook, and certainly follow the Fleisher Collection on Facebook, too, and really, watch Gary Galván playing that theremin!

Thank you again for joining me today on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.

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