Recently I mentioned that I’d be drowning myself in Vaughan Williams. I wasn’t kidding. Most of the music I’ve been listening to has been by Ralph. I’d definitely put him near the top of the list of greatest 20th century symphonists, and high up on any other list. His music is so characteristically himself. By the end of his life, he owed nothing to anyone other than himself. His 9th symphony is one of his greatest utterances. All I can think of to describe the work is that he was entering another whole realm. He had seen so much in his life (he was alive when Mahler was working, and died when Karlheinz Stockhausen was making waves in the music world) and this last symphony was his last major statement, worthy to enter the leagues of other great 9th’s.
The first thing that most people notice about the work is the less than common instrumentation. In addition to all the regular orchestral instruments there are three saxophones, and a flugelhorn, which doesn’t show up in many, if any, orchestral works, and certainly not in the big role the flugel has here. RVW gives many instructions/cues as to when other people should play in the advent that there is no flugel. One critic complained that all the extra instruments did was muddy up the middle range of the orchestra, but I disagree. The addition of these instruments adds a whole new color to the orchestra. The tuba also features more so than in most other symphonies. RVW wrote one of the first tuba concertos, and he had a thing for the brass, so it makes sense.
The first movement is in sonata form, what a surprise. It’s almost as if he wants to prove something by having the saxophones playing a legato chorale-esque melody very early on. This is not dance band music. The second movement starts right off with a solo flugelhorn, so again, using the odd instruments early on. There are some stunningly beautiful moments in the slow movement. But for me the best parts are the faster march-like bits. The character of these parts is really hard to describe. It’s sort of angry, but there are these flowing melodies over these march rhythms. I heard a story in this documentary (which is wonderful) about how this kid was staying over at RVW’s house, and at like 4 in the morning he heard RVW lumbering around upstairs, walking to the piano, banging out some chords, going back to his desk, repeat. The music he was hearing then was the second movement. How cool must that be? Having a masterwork being composed right over your head?
The saxophone comes in early again in the scherzo. The scherzo is absolutely nutty. It’s very over-the-top at some points, but sort of angry and intense at other times. There is a lot of overlaying of 6/8 and 2/4, which gives the music an off-kilter feel. Whenever you can have a grinding F/Gb dissonance as almost a theme, you gotta do it. Also whenever you can have the xylophone go nuts a little bit, you gotta do that too. The last movement starts off in a somewhat fugal manner, a similarity this work shares with his 6th symphony, which is in the same key. Reminiscences of the first theme of the opening movement are about. There is some painfully gorgeous string writing, and a lot of two against three rhythms. And just when you think we’re going to be all quiet and peaceful, all of a sudden we finally see E major in full glory. The saxophones recall the opening chorale type theme, but every time they introduce that doubt, the full orchestra blasts them away, telling us that yes, we will end in E major. Quietly, but still. The quiet ending is almost obligatory for RVW, so no surprise there.
RVW’s symphony No. 9 (and really most of his symphonies) are criminally underplayed. I don’t know why they haven’t started to achieve the same sort of success the Shostakovich symphonies have, because I’d say they are on equal par. One day! If you don’t know the ninth, or any others, check them out. It’s worth it.