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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony #4 in F minor (1934)

Second Movement

(Measure numbers, OUP edition, in parentheses)

This is probably one of the most concentrated movements Vaughan Williams ever wrote. It reminds me of a Bach slow movement. The structure is binary (though not symmetrical halves), and it sounds mostly like a contrapuntal aria over a chaconne-like tread in the bass. Both halves end with a solo flute near-cadenza.

The movement opens softly with the fanfare motif of the first movement in the brass and then the winds (1-6). At the end, the flutes give a little shake of 8th notes that have great consequences for the design of the themes that follow (5-6).

The cellos and basses, pizzicato, pluck out the bass, which derives from the first big tune (A) and also the bass accompaniment of tune B in the first movement. Over this, the upper strings start a slow aria in fugato (derived from the first movement's upward semitone run) to which the shake gives definition (10-26). This is varied by the oboe (26 ff.) and the other winds which try to turn the aria more or less upside-down. During this time, the intervals of the shake widen from 2nds to 4ths (26-37). At measures 36 and 37, the lower strings softly give out the shake in perfect 4ths. Violins and violas begin again, this time with the wind version of the aria (38-44). However, the counterpoint cuts off with a new theme (44-46), which is an amalgam of the first movement grinding (except now the octave leap is upwards) and the first movement big tune A. It will reappear throughout the movement mostly as an accompaniment. As you recall, A also derives from the grinding and the octave drop, so here Vaughan Williams tightens the relationship between these ideas. The music builds to fanfares in the brass against shakes of 4ths (50-57) and subsides.

The solo flute relates the shake to tune A (61-63). The horns echo the flute. We are winding down. There is some question, as in the end of the first movement, whether the section will end in major or minor (67-70). We have reached the first half of the movement.

Just when the gas starts to run out, the bassoon steals in with yet another variation of the aria and the pizzicato bass begins again (70 ff.). Fragments of previous themes are heard once more. By now, you can probably name them in your sleep: the semitone grind (reversed), the aria, the shake of 4ths and the "original" form, BACH and almost-BACH (see the celli at measure 78 the wind parts around 80 especially), tune A, etc. This builds to a climax where the brass have their fanfares against a chromatic and rhythmic variant of A (84-91). The relation between the pizzicato bass and tune B of the first movement is emphasized.

The violas (with discreet woodwind doubling) begin the fugato aria yet again (95) with a counter-melody in the high violins (A in yet another guise) (96-106). My, oh my. The oboe comes in with a "new" theme (actually an "almost-BACH") at measure 107 as the lower strings sing the woodwind version of the aria in dialogue with the horn. We rise to a small climax (carried by the fanfare thrown in for good measure) and subside on shakes of 4ths and 2nds in counterpoint with each other.

The harmony brightens for the only time in the movement (125). The strings try on the aria one mo' time, as we say in the South, but the flute is trying out its cadenza again simultaneously (125-130). By measure 131, we're landing at last. Over soft brass chords, the flute starts coming in from the stratosphere in several passes. By measure 136, we get intimations that the harmonic end of the movement is in doubt. The flute is the only thing moving at this point, and it keeps avoiding a landing on the tonic note, F, showing a marked preference for the leading tone, E.

Apparently, Vaughan Williams kept rethinking this seemingly small point. In his own recording, made in 1937, the flute ends "nicely" on an F over a soft F-major chord in the strings. By the late 50s, the final flute note is E, making a normally-mild dissonance within the chord. Debussy and Ravel use this chord (technically known as a "major-seventh") routinely to lush effect. Here, however, due to the orchestration, it unsettles you.

Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz

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