Symphony No. 5 in D major by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was written between 1938 and 1943. In style it represents a shift away from the violent dissonance of the Fourth Symphony, and a return to the more romantic style of the earlier Pastoral Symphony. It is also noteworthy as perhaps the quietest symphony Vaughan Williams ever wrote, with only a very few passages rising even to a forte. The texture throughout the work is strongly dominated by the strings.
Many of the musical themes in the Fifth Symphony stem from Vaughan Williams' then-unfinished operatic work, The Pilgrim's Progress. This opera, or "morality" as Vaughan Williams preferred to call it, had been in gestation for decades, and the composer had temporarily abandoned it at the time the symphony was conceived. Despite its origins, the symphony is without programmatic context, and is in the form of an extended development of musical themes taken from the morality rather than an attempt to cast it directly into symphonic form.
When Vaughan Williams started writing his 5th Symphony in 1938, he had been working on the opera The Pilgrim's Progress for thirty years. By the 1940s he had appeared to have abandoned the work, and decided to incorporate some of its ideas and themes into other works, most notably the 5th Symphony.
In January 1943, Vaughan Williams arranged for two of his friends to play through the newly completed piano duet score of the symphony. In later years his widow, Ursula, recalled that he was not impressed after hearing it, causing him to doubt his new work. After hearing the first orchestral rehearsal by the London Philharmonic on 25 May, he changed his mind.
Vaughan Williams dedicated the Symphony to Jean Sibelius. At the time, the Finnish composer was fashionable among British composers; Arnold Bax and William Walton had already written symphonies of Sibelian influence. The ascription originally read "Dedicated without permission and with the sincerest flattery to Jean Sibelius, whose great example is worthy of all imitation." When the work was published it was shortened to read "Dedicated without permission to Jean Sibelius". Sir Adrian Boult subsequently secured permission. Sibelius wrote: "I heard Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams' new Symphony in Stockholm under the excellent leadership of Malcolm Sargent...This Symphony is a marvellous work ... the dedication made me feel proud and grateful...I wonder if Dr. Williams has any idea of the pleasure he has given me?"
The symphony is scored for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, two French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. It is structured in fairly typical four-movement form:
The first movement lends itself to sonata form, but does not display all its characteristics; the second subject has been derived from the first subject. It opens with a pedal C in the bass, answered by a horn call outlining a D major chord in a dotted rhythm, which implies mixolydian D.
The violins however use the notes of the pentatonic scale, making the key ambiguous. Wilfrid Mellers believes this is why Vaughan Williams billed the movement as a Preludio, "which suggests an emergent state". The horn call motif fluctuates from major to minor, outlining the tonal ambiguity, moving between the mixolydian and dorian modes, which becomes a characteristic of the movement. The bass's C pedal becomes the tonic when the key changes to either the aeolian or dorian modes. The modality then moves to E, with a new melody in the violins, which, although it does not include a sharpened seventh, outlines E major. The bass, now played pizzicato, supports the melody both melodically and harmonically and the texture incorporates suspensions and passing notes, making the harmony richer. A sudden descent of a semitone, an idea previously used in Vaughan Williams' works Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Job, marks a key change to three flats and also the development section.
The tempo accelerates to allegro for the development. The strings are used to imply the winds of nature, in a similar vein to that of Sibelius. This is punctuated by the brass and woodwind with the falling semitone motif, which gets larger intervallically to a major second and then a minor third. This section is a canon; the polyphony of which Mellers believes shows the randomness of nature. The key shifts down mediants, until it reaches D minor, when the strings imitate Sibelius again, this time using tremolo effects.
For the recapitulation the tempo slows and the dynamics are reduced. The C pedal is reintroduced, but this time in a more melodic fashion. There is more development in the recapitulation. The movement ends in a similar way to the opening, with the horn call, but the key signature of two flats rather than one sharp is used. The bases descend to C via Eb, leaving the tonality of the movement still in question.
Several of the musical themes in this movement are used in Act I Scene I of The Pilgrim's Progress, particularly the opening dialogue between Pilgrim and Evangelist. A "Dresden Amen" theme appears towards the close of this movement.
Arnold Whittall argues that "With respect to D Major, the Preludio might be regarded as a clear case of Schoenbergian 'Schwebende Tonalität' ('fluctuating: suspended, not yet decided' tonality)."
Vaughan Williams utilises rhythm in the Scherzo to convey different effects. The focus of the movement is centred on the rhythm rather than the ambiguous tonality of the Preludio. Lionel Pike points out that "at times it seems more like a counterpoint of rhythms than of pitches." The movement begins with three dotted minims in a fast 3/4 time, then minims for four bars, which create hemiolas and then crotchets. This gives the illusion that the music is accelerating, and so the pulse does not settle. When the melodic line begins, the music is divided into five bar phrases. A sense of stability is established when the theme is repeated by the viola and double bass in stable two bar phrases. However the violins enter with phrasing that does not conform to either pattern, thus adding more confusion. Using this rhythmic phrasing, the dorian line played on the violins and the aeolian woodwind line are differentiated rhythmically, as well as tonally. The rhythmical confusion is halted when the wind and strings alternate downward runs antiphonally.
The primary themes in this movement are used in the opening of Act I Scene 2 of The Pilgrim's Progress ("The House Beautiful"). The opening cor anglais solo is taken virtually without change.
Pilgrim's lyric sung to this melody, "He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death", was originally used by Vaughan Williams as an inscription on this movement; while the contrasting agitated theme of the central section is taken from Pilgrim's lyric, "Save me! Save me, Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear". Rising fourths again appear as connecting passages. This movement might well be considered the spiritual core of the symphony.
Although this movement begins with the repetitive bass line characteristic of the passacaglia form, Vaughan Williams eventually abandons it. The triumphant primary melody of the passacaglia is used as Pilgrim's dialogue with Interpreter in the second half of "The House Beautiful" scene, while the fanfare motif recalls of "The Arming of the Pilgrim" in Act II Scene 1. This ushers in a return of the themes from the first movement of the symphony, which are resolved into a quiet valediction played first by the woodwind and then by the upper strings.
At the end of the fourth movement, a reference to Vaughan Williams' hymn Sine Nomine is made.
The Fifth Symphony was premiered on 24 June 1943 at a Proms Concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. The American premiere was given in Carnegie Hall on 30 November 1944 by the New York Philharmonic under Artur Rodziński.