Symphony #3 (“Pastoral”) and Fantasia on "Greensleeves"– Ralph Vaughan Williams




I think my first exposure to Ralph Vaughan Williams (pronounced “Rafe” and commonly referred to by his fans as "RVW") was through his Fantasia on Greensleeves. I swear we played it in high school orchestra, but I can't find it on any of my recordings of the orchestra concerts. Regardless, I fell in love with his lush, gentle adaptation of that old English folk song (and Christmas carol, under the guise of "What Child Is This?") for flute, harp and strings, and the way he paired it with another old English folk song, "Lovely Joan". (I since learned that the piece had been arranged by Ralph Greaves from a Vaughan Williams opera, Sir John in Love. As far as I'm concerned, that takes nothing away from the beauty of the work.)


It wasn't long before I discovered the symphonies of Vaughan Williams, and I knew I'd found one of my all-time favorite composers. I don't remember which of the symphonies I heard first, although I do remember that in high school I had a book of famous classical horn parts, and I had our horn section play several of them just for fun, including the slow horn march from the last movement of the second symphony.


Vaughan Williams wrote a total of nine symphonies. Many people with a passing knowledge of classical music have noted that a lot of famous composers have written only nine symphonies, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Antonin Dvorak, Franz Schubert, and Malcolm Arnold. Some of these, such as Mahler, were superstitious about the number nine, since Beethoven died after writing nine symphonies. Others, such as Vaughan Williams, actually did die after writing their ninth, although in many cases (including RVW), the composers simply did not write their last symphony until they were quite advanced in years (RVW completed his last symphony at the age of 79). Despite the legends, many symphonists have written well beyond that number -- Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote 41, Alan Hovhannes wrote 67, Franz Josef Haydn wrote 107, and Finnish composer Leif Segerstam just completed his 244th symphony in March of 2011. (The record holder, by the way, is American composer Rowan Taylor, who had written 265 symphonies by his death in 2005.)


Okay, where was I? Oh, yeah -- Vaughan Williams. I love the music of RVW in general. It's very English; somehow I can imagine that this is the type of music J. R. R. Tolkien was listening to when he wrote "Lord of the Rings".


RVW uses a lot of modal writing. Imagine a major scale. For those with no musical knowledge, think of the song "Do, Re, Mi" from "The Sound of Music" ("Do, a deer, a female deer...."). When they sing "Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do", they're singing a standard major scale. The seven different modes are simply the same scale starting on a different note each time. These modes were identified by the ancient Greeks, and they were given "characters" by medieval composers and philosophers. The modes and some of their characters are as follows:

  • Lydian (the standard major scale, based on "Do", or the first note of the major scale): Happy
  • Phrygian (based on "Re", the second note): Mystic, Vehement, or Inciting anger
  • Dorian (based on "Mi", the third note): Serious, Any feeling, or Happy/Taming the passions
  • Hypolydian (based on "Fa", the fourth note): Devout, Pious, or Tearful and pious
  • Hypophrygian (based on "Sol", the fifth note): Harmonious, Tender, or Inciting delights/Tempering fierceness
  • Locrian or Hypodorian (the standard minor scale, based on "La", the sixth note): Sad or Serious and Tearful
  • Mixolydian (based on "Ti", the seventh note): Angelical, Of youth, or Uniting pleasure and sadness

Modes are common in folk music of many cultures, and the use of them is one of RVW's most recognizable characteristics.


The nine symphonies of Vaughan Williams are among my favorite compositions of all time, but the middle five -- numbers 3 through 7 -- are what especially attracted me to him. They are wildly different in temperament. RVW wrote his third symphony in 1921, and called it his "Pastoral" Symphony. He himself commented that it is "in four movements, all of them slow", and it has not always been well received. While one critic said it made him fall in love with music all over again, another thought it "suggested V.W. rolling over and over in a ploughed field on a wet day", and a fellow composer commented that it was "like a cow looking over a gate".


The “Pastoral” Symphony may sound like a half-hour of "modal meandering in which nothing much happens, and that not very loudly", but this is deeply misleading. For this is war music -- not the sound of violence and militarism, but a contemplation on the results of war: the scarred landscape, the lost friends. At the age of 41, RVW was a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps in France in World War I, and while he never spoke of the horrors he witnessed there, his emotions found their way into many of his compositions. This was the earliest of these, and was inspired, in his words, when "I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset".


There is deep sorrow in this music, and a yearning for peace. Three of the things that stand out to me: the trumpet solo at the end of the second movement that recalls a bugler sounding an ethereal call at sunset; the humorous waltz that breaks out during the third movement and sounds like a normally solemn farmer dancing in his boots (so hobbit-like!); and the heart-wrenching wordless soprano solo at the beginning and end of the fourth movement, bringing to mind a French peasant girl singing quietly over the battlefield, with a hint of thunder in the distance.


This is gorgeous music, sad and hopeful. Unfortunately, I could find only the first movement and the third movement on YouTube. For the rest of the symphony, you'll have to find it at a library or download it online from iTunes or someplace similar.


My personal recommendation of an interpretation is that by the London Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn.


If you want to hear the "Fantasia on Greensleeves", try this one. The visual is only a picture of RVW; there is another post that has more action, but the camera work is a little distracting.