B-A-H-B

I don’t know whether I like it,
but it’s what I meant.

– Vaughan Williams on his 4th symphony

The audience at the first performance of this symphony – those, that is, that knew the opening of the composer’s third –

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André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876-55708 – 2

must have been astonished and (to say the least) rather unnerved when this musical cataclysm burst on their unsuspecting ears:

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André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876-55708 – 2

Once the initial shock was over, however, further listening to this seeming cacophony revealed a muscular, sinewy music that was based around two four note motifs.

The first is chromatic (won’t fit in any known key) and bears more than a passing resemblance to the BACH motif (though, transposed to the same initial pitch as the BACH, Vaughan Williams’ motif would actually spell BAHB):

Ex. 1

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The second is diatonic (the notes exist in a number of both major and minor keys) and can easily be distinguished by its opening rising intervals of a fourth:

Ex. 2

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These two dominate the material of the symphony throughout, from its dramatic beginning to the finale’s fugal epilogue.

Course materials:

VW biography

The music:
André Previn – Symphony No. 4 in F Minor: Allegro

[Spotify search terms: vaughan williams “symphony no. 4” previn]

General musical materials:

Keyboard

Cycle of 5ths

Modes

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