The nine symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams represent one of the peaks of creative achievement in British culture. Written between the times of Edwardian bluster and the rock 'n roll era, they chart war-torn decades, as well the composer's reactions to them, through their directness and demonstrative strength. It’s hard to think of another symphonic cycle that achieves such a variety of styles and emotional impact. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1952, photographed by Ursula Wood
© Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

Has there ever been a more confident and dazzling opening to any first symphony than the blazing brass fanfare and choral outburst on the words “Behold, the sea itself”? This brilliant gesture, as well as the triumphant premiere of his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis only a month earlier, announced the ambitious young composer as being at the front rank of British composers, no more just that “odd fellow from Chelsea” (Herbert Brewer), but a major creative force. 

The Mahlerian proportions of A Sea Symphony are contained within a big-boned, satisfying structure. The thematic material is richly colourful and the handling of the soloists, choral and orchestral forces is expertly managed. The prosaic text is by Walt Whitman, a poet set by many British composers, including Delius and Holst, but it was Vaughan William who found the ideal tone of grandness and spirituality to match the poet’s visionary agnosticism.  

The atmosphere of the opening movement is powerful and awe inspiring. The slow movement, On the Beach at Night, Alone, is an uplifting setting for baritone and chorus. The brilliant Scherzo is full of thrilling choral and orchestral effects that show the composer at his most French, with echoes of Debussy’s La Mer. The finale, The Explorers, is the most ambitious and visionary and includes the first example of the composer’s trademark quiet epilogues. 

From the inhuman power of the sea, Vaughan Williams moved to depicting the all too human world of a bustling city. A London Symphony was first performed to much acclaim in 1914. However, the composer wasn’t happy with the structure and set about rewriting parts of the score. The start of World War 1 interrupted his revisions, as the composer volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver at the front. It wasn’t until after the end of the war that he was able to resume work on the score and it was only in 1936 that a final, tauter version was published. 

The work is bookended by an impressionistic evocation of travelling down the Thames into the great city, complete with Westminster chimes. The first movement is a heady mix of busyness, elegance and tragedy. The slow movement has a romantic atmosphere, depicting Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon. The passionate central climax, depicting a lovers tryst, blossoms into one of the most beautiful moments in all Vaughan Williams. 

The Scherzo occupies a nocturnal world of gaslit shadows, by turns playful and sinister. The Finale has a tragic tone and builds to an apocalyptic climax, which seems to be pointing towards a collapse of certainties. With World War 1 just around the corner, it now feels prescient. 

Vaughan Williams returned from the war a different man. His terrible experiences at the front left a mark on him that found expression in many works during the 1920s and '30s. The Pastoral Symphony, which received its first performance in 1922, was partially written while the composer was on active duty and portrays the bleak landscape of war-torn Northern France. Its lack of drama and its sad restraint was deeply misunderstood by early audiences, who were already in the swing of the roaring 20s. In recent years its melancholy has been valued as a supremely touching lament for the war-time losses and not the pastoral nostalgia it was first perceived to be. The usual four movements are “all slow”, as the composer described them. Notably the Lento moderato features a natural trumpet passage which recreates the sound of a bugler practising on the battlefield to haunting effect and the finale uses with a solo voice to introduce a theme which is developed with uniquely tragic poignancy. 

There couldn’t be much more of a contrast between the Pastoral and the F minor symphony that followed it in 1935. Instead of gentle restraint, the composer creates a shocking statement of almost pure anger and negative power. Several factors were in play while he was composing the Fourth, not least an abiding reaction to the trauma of war. He was also deeply affected by the deteriorating health of his great friend Gustav Holst and the unrest that was brewing again in Europe. However, Vaughan Williams threw himself into the composition with rigour, hiding the strength of his feelings behind the technical challenges he set himself.

The Fourth is his most tightly constructed symphony, following the mould – but without the victorious conclusion – of Beethoven’s Fifth. The grinding dissonance of the opening sets the tone for the whole work. Brutality and sarcasm are everywhere and ultimately it is superhuman energy that carries the day, when a devastating fugal epilogue returns us where it all stridently began, with grinding discords followed by an abrupt F minor chord. We have arrived, but it feels as if we haven’t moved anywhere.

When the composer conducted the premiere of his Fifth Symphony eight years later so much had changed in both his life and in the world. No longer were the storm clouds just gathering, the thunder and lightning of war was in full swing. In his personal life, a new love had unexpectedly appeared, Ursula Wood, who was to become his second wife after the death of his first wife a decade later. The tone of the new work seemed to be magically conciliatory, especially during those dark times. The wartime audience in 1943 were deeply moved by it, seeing the symphony as an antidote to the hardships they were facing. It has remained the most loved of the nine. 

The work also has a very special spiritual atmosphere, largely due to calling on thematic material from his continuing work on his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress. However, the four movements each contain moments of angst, but this eventually unwinds in the most delicious of all the composer’s quiet epilogues, with D major radiantly achieved. 

In 1948, when the Sixth Symphony was premiered, the world was recovering from the massive trauma of the most widespread and destructive war in history. Many of Europe’s great cities were reduced to rubble and the world’s infrastructure was in tatters. It was a time of celebration, but also of hardship and disillusion. Much of that ambivalent atmosphere is brilliantly captured in his symphony and was immediately recognised by audiences. The work resonated so deeply that it was performed over 100 times in its first year.

 The opening Allegro starts furiously and continues in this vein until an unexpected statement of the main theme in E major seems to find some peace, but this soon becomes tragic in tone. 

The Scherzo is the violent heart of the symphony; it dances manically, but this is a dance where no one is having any fun. What follows is a lengthy finale entitled Epilogue, which consists of apparently aimless pianissimo meanderings. To those first audiences this appeared to represent a blasted landscape following a nuclear explosion. It remains one of the most dramatic and telling finales of any symphony. 

Vaughan Williams composed the film score for Scott of the Antarctic in 1948. By then he had written several film scores and had developed his skill in integrating and enhancing visuals through music. To a great degree the success of Charles Frend's film, which largely charts failure and foolhardiness, was due to the power of the score. Vaughan Williams knew that this material was good and he felt drawn into producing a tragic symphonic work using its best music. The resulting Sinfonia antartica was first performed by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli in 1953. 

The work consists of five movements and is noteworthy for its glittering orchestral effects, which influenced much film music that followed. The use of a wind machine and women’s voices adds to the sense of bleakness and tragedy. The opening Prelude has a weary trudging tone and in the Scherzo there are wonderful tone paintings of whales and penguins. The central Landscape movement is the most atmospheric, with the dazzling and groaning layers of the ice depicted though ingenious orchestration; a stark outburst capped by the organ is one of the highlights. 

The Alla marcia that opens the finale starts vigorously but is eventually overcome by the keening of the women and the whistle of the wind machine, the latter appropriately having the last word.

Only two years later, Barbirolli and the Hallé gave the first performance of the Eighth Symphony. The composer, now well into his eighties, was happily married to Ursula and was enjoying the freedom to travel and enjoy life in a way he hadn’t for many years. The new work was comparatively light and airy, though it would be a mistake to assume it operates on a lower creative level. As with Beethoven's Eighth, the relaxed atmosphere is peppered with moments of anxiety, wit and beauty. The subtle opening Fantasia is “a set of variations in search of a theme,” as described be the composer. The Scherzo is a lesson in concision. For woodwinds and brass alone, it has a sharp freshness new to the composer. The Toccata uses a large battery of percussion leading to a sense of excitement and positivity at its end. This is music of hope on a smaller, more human, scale than Vaughan Williams had previously attempted in his symphonic writing, and is all the more touching for its humility.

Vaughan Williams composed his final symphony during the last two years of his long life. By 1958 musical tastes had moved on and the avant-garde held sway. As a result, the Ninth was underestimated at its premiere, with several critics finding it unambitious and showed a falling off in inspiration. It is, however, a work that requires time to reveal its beauties and it has now taken its rightful place as one of the composers most deeply felt works in any form.

Music from an unfinished earlier work about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d'Urbervilles found its way into the score. Initially the first two movements were given title relating to the novel, but these were taken out before the first performance. The tone is elegiac and tragically defiant, as befits the original subject. The first movement is notable for its autumnal orchestration, with the inclusion of saxophones and flugelhorn adding a brown hue to the palette. The second movement, which was particularly associated with Tess, is a strange, ghostly dance of death surrounding a touching passage, innocent and passionate, that seems to depict Tess herself. 

In the Finale there is a sense of personal struggle. In the composers mind this music may have represented Tess' tribulations, but its hard not to sense the trials of his own old age, his deteriorating health weighing heavily. Ultimately the struggle appears to be with death itself, the final hard won E major chords seeming to be pointing at something still just out of view. 

The journey across the landscapes of all nine symphonies to this E major conclusion is a deeply satisfying and stimulating one. Vaughan Williams’ strengths are to be seen at their most resplendent across the cycle: an unerring sense of how to shape a movement; an ability to create inspired thematic material fit for purpose; great skill in using harmonic colours as dramatic effects; and always finding something powerful and meaningful to say without drawing attention to himself. A glorious achievement that should be celebrated and treasured by music lovers everywhere.