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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony #4 in F minor (1934)

Third Movement

The third movement resembles a Beethoven scherzo and trio, basically an a-B-A form: scherzo-trio-scherzo. Vaughan Williams modifies the overall structure, not outrageously, by tacking on a coda-transition-to- the-next-movement passage.

"Scherzo," of course, means "joke." In this movement, we get the symphony, up to this point, in a fun-house mirror, lively, grotesque, and somewhat frightening at the same time. The work contains the following themes:

1a. An upward rush of 4ths, followed by a harping on 5ths and major 6ths. This derives from the fanfare motif and tune B of the first movement (the one which begins with the repeated notes), as well as the "shake" of the second movement. This is the major material for the "a" part of the scherzo.
1b. A 6/8 version of movement 1's tune B. This is the major material for the "b" part of the scherzo. It consists of repeated notes followed by an insistent upward minor third.
2. A fugal subject, derived from the fanfare motif. This is the matter of the trio.

First appearance of the scherzo (1-148):

We begin with 1a. Almost immediately (5-7), Vaughan Williams interrupts this with "almost-BACH," played by muted trumpets in one time, by the winds at twice the speed, and by the strings at 3 times the speed. It's almost immediately clear that this major motif has been demoted to an accompanying ostinato (8 ff.). Over this, the winds take up 1a (10-36), joined near the end by the rest of the orchestra. By the way, notice how syncopated all this is. Most instruments enter off the beat. How Vaughan Williams ever got the reputation for stodgy rhythm, I don't know. At any rate, this is followed (37-39) by a swirl of mainly high strings, out of which comes another lurching idea (functioning as a transition) that comes from part of tune B (see measure 87 in the first movement, violins and violas). This idea lurches to 1b (48-71).

As 1b progresses, two interesting things happen: the upward third becomes more and more insistent and four of the symphony's five opening cells (1a-1c, 1e, first movement) start creeping in. These begin with a very soft horn entry (71) of the grinding semitone, BACH in the brass (78-79), and almost-BACH in the high winds and strings against the fanfare's rising 4ths in the low winds (80-84). BACH and almost-BACH gradually take over and lead into the second statement of 1a in the bassoon (102 ff.). Vaughan Williams shortens the restatement.

Very quickly, after another swirl of strings and winds, we launch into 1b again (133 ff.), this too telescoped. Toward the end of this section (144-148), we seem to be about to lurch into something else, but the section really runs out of gas. (A subtle point for those of you with scores: notice the clarinets in the background with the opening motif of the first movement.) The emotional energy dissipates. We have reached the trio.

Trio (149-214)

Not much to say here that I haven't already said. This is a straightforward fugal treatment of theme 2, nominally in Eb, but who knows? This section always reminds me of Hindemith, but only because Hindemith's favorite interval is the 4th and he also likes fugues. The section has been described, possibly by Vaughan Williams himself, as "elephantine," but I find it has its graceful, even delicate, moments. Harping on fifths (from 1a) leads to the

Scherzo, round 2 (214-270)

A quick count of the measures reveals Vaughan Williams isn't about to give us an exact repeat. We're into 1a with a crash. The highpoints are repeated, another swirl, and we sail right into 1b, which curiously enough dies suddenly. It's like an infant sweeping the bowl off his high chair. Vaughan Williams tries again with the fugal subject (271-279), but rejects that with part of 1b (280-283). We are left with mutterings (based on the lurch) in the lower parts (284 ff.). We have reached the coda.

Coda-transition (284-324)

A coda wraps things up. A transition leads to something new. This section polishes off the matter of the third movement and winds up to deliver the fourth. The movement begins as a dialogue between the fanfare motif (the main matter of the scherzo) and the symphony's opening grinding semitone. At measure 316, the grinding turns into almost-BACH and gets faster and more insistent, and we leave the fanfares behind. Vaughan Williams plays almost-BACH against itself in various rhythms over the mutterings (never absent from the texture). The section grows louder and quicker until there's an upward swoop which leads directly to the blare of the fourth movement.

Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz

Forward to the Fourth Movement,
back to the Second Movement
back to Vaughan Williams.