Tess(?)

The ninth symphony had a cool reception in Britain when in was premiered in 1958. Since then critics have considerably revised their opinions, a change of attitude which is succinctly expressed in James Day’s description of the piece as:

…the work, not of a tired old man, but of a very experienced one.

As you will have noticed the symphonies from four onward seem to come in two varieties: dark and light or, to put it in terms of emotional ethos, optimistic and pessimistic (think of the ‘dark’ Vaughan Williams of four, six and seven and the optimism of symphonies five and eight). What makes nine different is that it is, for the first time, a synthesis of these opposing states:

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

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

The work started out with a programme based around the Wessex of Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbevilles with the titles Wessex Prelude and Landscape for the first and last movements and a slow movement that centred on Tess herself. But, as the composer tells us, the narrative

…got lost on the journey – so now, oh no, we never mention it.

…which is as maybe, but it’s still possible for the attentive listener to hear the ‘ghostly drummer of Salisbury Plain’ and the clock strike eight on the fatal morning of Tess’s execution.

The symphony is scored for a large orchestra including three saxophones (2 altos, 1 tenor) and a flugelhorn.

Course materials:

VW biography

The music:
Vaughan Williams 9
[Spotify search terms:
vaughan williams “symphony No. 9” previn]

General musical materials:

Keyboard

Cycle of 5ths

Modes

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Featured image: Jeffrey Pfau; Stonehenge at sunset on a cloudy day

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