Spring Symphonies: 3/60 Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 8

 There's been a strong tendency to read music as autobiography over time and especially in the case of Ralph Vaughan-Williams.  Not helped by the composer himself, when its not autobiography, his works are sharply focused on their many extra-musical associations.  It is hard to disassociate his Seventh symphony with the film music from which it is derived. But I think we should sometimes try.  The nagging question remains for me is this all a bit too handy because in the case of the 7th Symphony he also prepared a suite of that film music so why write a symphony as well. 

So I'm going to scratch my head about the Eighth symphony, one of my favourites, in the same way I do about the Ninth Symphony and put aside all the usual malarkey about wedding bells and a reinvigorated Octogenarian.

The Eighth sounds fascinating and much of the time when it's discussed it's with wonderment about its instrumental effects and the orchestral bravura - but there is more to it I think.

I distinctly recall the moment Vernon Handley's recording of the Eighth Symphony came out because I'd heard an except of him conducting the Eighth on TV and it seemed to me to be a much more complex work.  So here goes.

The work opens with a trumpet and vibraphone - unusual to say the least distracting too - winds join it and its got a very Fifties style about it - for a moment.  But within the first minute and more anxious string passage challenges the calm of this episode.  A restless section follows - the tension is rising in many ways - the bold writing sometimes under emphasises the disquiet here.  the shifting sands of this episode gives way to a more elegant but equally unstable exotic mix of harp and strings and plangent winds.  Every device is plied up - solo cello, horns over strings, solo flute (all so very transient as to add to the dis-ease.  The big string tune is kinda sad. An oboe breaks out with all the wistfulness of Brahms or one of RVW's pastoral scene setting tone poems.  The restive brass and strings stir to great things but  never quite make it.  The break down is hapless and wreathed in a wash of RVW's goodness.  There's an infamous moment for me which was preceded first by a fitful rising brass figure then a militaristic pompous blustering explosion.  Then the climax of the movement is rising horn notes and trumpets resplendent and drums receding as the whole lot becomes and etherial nostalgic fog punctuated by solo winds and brass return with vibraphone and a single dainty string chord.

Ten minutes of prime Vaughan Williams in inventive mood it would appear - variations in search of a theme as someone put it. I think that's not good enough.  There is much that is uneasy here.  Much that is glimpsed but not fulfilled and much that is such fleeting joy that it goes beyond the boyish teasing of the old man into something much more regretful or fitful or drab.  A commentary of the very fleeting nature of life's great highs perhaps or at least a warning to the listener that much in this music and maybe all music has a half-life and sharp edged moment to be enjoyed.

The scherzo is truly of Stravinskian or Shostakovichian mood.  Winds and brass - jaunty is a word that comes to mind but doesn't stick very well for me. After a while with this music I regard it as vehement, perfunctory and at best sardonic. It's edge is emphasised for me by the deadpan material, the fugue is hard and scurrying undertones disrupted it. The Trio is a rather sad little reminiscence a la Ravel. The return of the scherzo material has some sharp edges and blunt chords moreover it's sign off is tantalisingly sarcastic. This is caustic corrosive music at heart I feel.

The string Cavatina has much beauty but this is a tragic story - we can reach for references to the St Matthew Passion or even some late Romantic work. But there's nothing quite so uncomfortable in the rest of Vaughan Williams string writing which matches it's uneasy fragility. Compare the violin solo with the Lark Ascending and the formers icy fingers are apparent. This music has lost is power to strive too. It has a cold hand, a touch of the graveside visit about it.

The final toccata has got lost in its own construction - yes there is lots of percussion. But the noble horn tune we hear early on is upbeat but decays, a fidgety bit gives way to urgent strings and that vibraphone again - reality and an imaginary force combine. The second faster brass led episode is striving but at its highest point has bitterness. There are bells, the ascending scales are followed by solo after solo but this is locomotive motion. There"s rolling, pitching and yawning. Until a fanfare groups everything into a fore square declamation which is as abrupt and clear headed as anything RVW  wrote.

I remember Handley's stiff lipped, glowering on TV as the brass snarl against this ending. This is no more joyful than a walk into a cold industrial landscape - we were promised rose gardens and we got factories.

Listen to RVW Eight often. It is not what it seems and to bring it into an un easier time and place might be easy to do historically, but it's even easier to do musically - it is corroded and brittle metal.

And here's a link to Handley himself making very little of his re-alignment of perspectives on the Eighth


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