A 'Pastoral' Symphony

Vaughan Williams composed nine symphonies in total, over the course of nearly 60 years. A Pastoral Symphony was his third symphony and was completed in 1921. It consists of four movements, which are all slow in tempo, and is scored for full orchestra and soprano soloist.

The composer described the mood of the symphony in the programme notes for the first performance as ‘almost entirely quiet and contemplative – there are a few fortissimos and few allegros. The only really quick passage is the Coda to the third movement, and that is all pianissimo.’

Vaughan Williams did not compose any music during the First World War, but the Pastoral Symphony is intimately associated with his experience of serving as an ambulance driver with the Royal Army Medical Corps in northern France in 1916.

The title Pastoral is potentially misleading therefore as the symphony was not conceived as a programmatic evocation of an idyllic landscape. As Vaughan Williams wrote to his future wife Ursula Wood in October 1938: ‘It is really war time music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset – it’s not really Lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted’.

A Pastoral Symphony was first performed in London on 26 January 1922 at a concert of the Royal Philharmonic Society conducted by Adrian Boult.

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