After the controversy aroused by his stridently dissonant Symphony No. 4, Ralph Vaughan Williams further surprised his most loyal listeners by following it with a quiet and subdued Symphony No. 5 (1943). This was made all the more out of step with the times because the premiere took place during World War II, when most English artists with name recognition were called upon to create new works with some sort of overt patriotism or quaint simplification of famous English themes.
Robert Quinney, who arranged the symphony for organ, partly attributes this “serenity” to the borrowing of musical material from the composer’s then incomplete opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Quinney believes the third movement Romanza acts as the “heart” of the symphony, identifying “…first the cor anglais [English horn] theme heard at the opening, which sets the words, ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death’; second, the agitated central section quotes the music for the Pilgrim’s outburst, ‘Save me, Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear’.”
These borrowed melodies, along with the subtle orchestral textures and occasional passages of heterophony, account for only a backdrop, however, against a powerful musical effect that stirs with every deliberate harmonic shift. In this way, this is an anthem to the time that it was written in, bringing forth a sense of both upheaval and renewal.
Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin and a JD from McGeorge School of Law.