Vaughan Williams’s Symphony no 5

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IF YOU RECALL, a few weeks ago I presented Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony as THE symphony for our times, in its realistic depiction of state evil and its warning that history repeats itself. Well, here is another symphony for our times but in a very different sense altogether — one which reflects beauty, honour, glory and everything noble and virtuous about life which is nostalgically lurking on the hinterland of the universe and in a hidden corner of our hearts. The 5th Symphony of the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, is, to my mind, the most beautiful piece of pure music ever written. It is certainly one of the most spiritual pieces of music ever composed. Astonishingly, it was written at the height of the Second World War! Vaughan Williams was inspired to write it while composing his opera “Pilgrim’s Progress”, which he viewed as the manifestation of morality and this is what lies at the heart of this symphony. There is an order and cleanness which feels wholesomely noble. The very opposite of the chaos, amorality and disorder which lay at the heart of Europe when the symphony was being written. From start to finish, it is rivetingly beautiful. Just when you think it couldn’t get any more beautiful than the first movement, the third movement (coming after a lilting scherzo) is nothing less than divine, music to bring you into the presence of God. The final movement is the perfect end to the work; the coda in the last few minutes being one of the most beautiful endings of any symphony ever written.

Interestingly, the work was dedicated to the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, another favourite composer of mine who also has that clean, noble sound of pure unpolluted nature. Sibelius loved the work and so do I. Its genuineness, nobility and sanctified beauty never fail to bring tears to my eyes, right from the first chords. Tears of atavistic joy and deep longing for qualities long-forgotten in the world today, yet without which the human realm will not be able to continue.

It is wonderful to see this live recording by the great Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra with the quintessential English conductor, Andrew Davis. Recorded last year in the Alte Oper, Frankfurt, I rejoice to see Vaughan Williams’ music being played in a central European country — where Vaughan Williams works are hardly ever heard — instead of the more familiar countries of the UK and USA, where his works are well-known and often played. Andrew Davis has certainly coached them into the English mellifluous legato mode of playing, in place of a more austere Germanic style.

Please give 40 minutes of your time to allow the incandescent purity of this work to bathe your soul. It will strike you from the very first notes; and I can promise that it will live with you forever.


© Alan Morrison, 2017

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