THIS MUSIC REPRESENTS MY MOOD TODAY — heartfully wistful, strangely valedictory, gently profound, and full of a yearning for that-which-cannot-yet-be-reached. The 5th Symphony of the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, is one which reflects great 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. This 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 and first performed at the BBC Proms in June 1943 (with the composer himself conducting). Vaughan Williams was inspired to write it while composing his opera based on John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, which he viewed as the manifestation of the highest 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 (titled “Romanza”, coming after a mysteriously lilting scherzo) is nothing less than divine, music to bring you into the presence of God. In fact, Vaughan Williams scribbled some words from “Pilgrim’s Progress” at the top of this movement in his manuscript score:
“Upon that place there stood a cross,
and a little below a sepulchre… Then he said,
‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow
and life by his death”.
The music there speaks for itself. The final movement is a perfect end to the work; the coda in the last few minutes being one of the most beautiful endings of any symphony ever written, disappearing into the mists of a long diminuendo.
Interestingly, the symphony 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 Radio Symphony Orchestra with the quintessential English conductor, Andrew Davis. Recorded in 2016 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. Conductor Andrew Davis (or Sir Andrew Davis, if you’re sensitive!) has certainly coached them into the English mellifluous, lilting legato mode of playing, in place of a more austere Germanic style. This orchestra is a joy to watch and listen to. The sound of the strings is so beautiful and they all put their hearts and souls into playing. The leader of the orchestra (and first violin), Ulrich Edelmann, deserves much credit for his work in this performance.
It is also worth noting here that there is a kind of heartrending irony in the fact that this symphony was written at the height of World War II to bring a little bit of paradise and serenity into people’s lives; and here it is being played in the heart of a major German city which was bombed hugely by allied forces. Weeks before the symphony was first performed, Frankfurt was bombed by 115 US Boeing B-17s and 402 British bombers in the course of two days. Six months later, the medieval centre of Frankfurt (the largest in Germany) was completely destroyed by planes of the RAF and 1000 inhabitants were killed. So, to be playing this very English symphony written in World War 2 some 77 years later in Frankfurt (possibly for the first time) is a historic moment and one which will not have been lost on both audience and orchestra. The fickleness of history is mindboggling. Imagine if you had told the residents of Frankfurt in 1943 that a symphony by an English composer would be played in their town and conducted by an English conductor 77 years hence! This is a topsy-turvy world, and Vaughan Williams wanted to bring some sanity and heavenly beauty into it.
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…