Ralph Vaughan Williams and his Fifth Symphony: ultimately, a paean to hope

British classical music of the 20th century has been defined by the works of Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar. But to Sir Andrew Davis, one other composer belongs in that pantheon: Ralph Vaughan Williams. “Elgar’s style was quite consistent, and Britten changed over the years, but there was not the radical breadth of emotional range that you find in Vaughan Williams,” said Davis in a recent New York Times article.

Former music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Davis also is president of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society. “It has always been for me a source of pride and happiness to present music from our sceptred isle overseas,” he writes on the society's website, “and no composer more so than Vaughan Williams.”

To celebrate the composer's sesquicentennial birth year, orchestras worldwide are honoring him with special programs. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform his Symphony No. 5 in concerts Nov. 3-5.

Critic David Allen, author of the New York Times article, offers a personal tribute to Vaughan Williams' catalog, in particular, the Fifth Symphony:

“On account of that breadth of emotional and compositional range, there are any number of entry points into Vaughan Williams’ work; for me, the moment of discovery came hearing the Fifth Symphony.

“On its face, the Fifth is one of Vaughan Williams’ most straightforward works, and more than debatably his most purely beautiful. Dedicated to Sibelius, it premiered at the Royal Albert Hall, with the composer conducting on June 24, 1943, and it was immediately hailed for its lustrous consolation amid total war. After a New York Philharmonic performance the following year, [New York Times critic Olin] Downes called it “the symphony of a poet, regardless of the throng, who communes with the ideal.”

“That poetry, especially the yearning of its Romanza, was hard-earned. Vaughan Williams started the symphony after he met Ursula Wood in 1938, his eventual second wife, who offered him musical as well as personal rejuvenation. He found inspiration piecing together scraps from other works, including from an opera he feared he would not finish, The Pilgrim’s Progress and short contributions to a pageant that he had directed, “England’s Pleasant Land.” They were called Exit for the Ghosts of the Past and A Funeral March for the Old Order.

“The result is not the exercise in dishonest nostalgia that some critics have heard. The scholar Julian Horton has argued that, from its uneasy opening harmonies to its concluding passacaglia, seraphic at the last, its rarefied blend of archaic modes and modern tonalities created “a new musical order,” a way out of a musical and civilization collapse.

“Put another way, the Fifth is a symphony about hope.”