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Length: c. 30 minutes

About this Piece

Composed:  1944-1947; 1950
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (side drum, cymbals, xylophone, bass drum, triangle, suspended), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 27, 1958, John Barnett conducting

Since its premiere in 1948, the Symphony No. 6 by Ralph Vaughan Williams has been subject to speculation over hidden meanings in the music. Asked about the Symphony in an interview late in his life, the composer groused, “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.”

Yet listeners continue to hear ways the Symphony reflects the conditions under which Vaughan Williams wrote it: He began work on the piece in 1944 and completed it in 1947, through the conclusion and early aftermath of World War II. This was his first symphony after the war, and its violence and bleakness certainly aroused audience expectations that he would comment on the experience.

The four moments of the Symphony are performed without pauses between the movements — as Vaughan Williams himself described, with the “tail attached to the head of its neighbor,” as a single sustained pitch serves as a segue. The opening of the Allegro uses E minor and F minor simultaneously, creating harmonic clashes to destabilize the movement. The strings’ melody begins like a desperate cry fighting against the fray; the brass eventually take the frenzied theme. A march breaks out, contributing to the militaristic atmosphere. A contrasting theme in E major with strings and harp hints at Vaughan Williams’s well-known pastoralism, but it succumbs to the harsh opening theme.

A low E connects to the Moderato second movement, which features a persistent rhythmic figure that calls to mind “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets­. This ostinato grows overwhelming, then dissipates to merely a whisper underneath a mournful English horn solo to conclude the movement.

“Scherzo” literally means “jest,” but the humor of this Allegro vivace is sardonic. The heart of the movement features a tenor saxophone solo – a reference to the Café de Paris nightclub in London, destroyed by bombs in 1941, killing patrons and members of the jazz band.

Quiet strings create an eerie atmosphere for the Epilogue: Moderato – in fact, the entire final movement never rises above a pianissimo, making it difficult to detect its fugal structure. This barren ending has led many to speculate that it depicts the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, but Vaughan Williams later clarified his intent with a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “I think we can get in words nearest to the substance of my last movement in ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep.’”

Notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason