Magazine article Musical Times

Skeleton Key

Magazine article Musical Times

Skeleton Key

Article excerpt

Skeleton key

ROBERT ANDERSON Vaughan Williams's Ninth Symphony Alain Frogley Oxford UP (Oxford St New York, 2001); xxiv, 313pp; L50. ISBN 0 19 816284 7.

The core of this book in Oxford's or New York's) `Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure' series is four very detailed chapters on the sketches, drafts, and scores that went towards the evolution of the symphony's four movements. Such an investigation is possible only in the case of this symphony, as it was Vaughan Williams's practice to destroy evidence of creative toil. To complement the first performance of Symphony no.9 on 2 April 1958, some four months before the composer's death, there was an exhibition at the Festival Hall of the ,scaffolding' used in construction of the work. Vaughan Williams proposed showing `the whole of the scaffolding, but did nothing of the sort. There are thirty-one notebooks towards the symphony at the British Library, not all of which went on display, and indeed there are no records of what was finally on public show.

Vaughan Williams seems to have been particularly coy about the programmatic ideas that had propelled the symphony, crucially in some places. On this subject, his original programme note could hardly have been more arch:

The second movement, Andante Sostenuto, seems to have no logical connection between its various themes. This has led some people to think that it must have a programme since apparently programme music need not be logical. It is quite true that the movement started off with a programme, but it got lost on the journey - so now, oh no, we never mention it - and the music must be left to speak for itself whatever that may mean.

I am not sure that the second movement makes much sense without knowledge of its debt to Hardy's Tess, the night-time arrival at Stonehenge, and fateful approach of the police to arrest her as she lies on the sacrificial stone in the midst of the ancient circle. The eight sombre strokes of the bell, the last agonisingly delayed, take on full meaning only in connection with Tess's execution at Wintoncester. 'Wessex' overlays all four movements in the sketches, and I wonder whether Frogley has been wise to marshal all the programmatic material only after we have trudged gamely through the dense undergrowth from which Vaughan Williams painfully worked out his scheme. The Matthew Passion, which Vaughan Williams had recently conducted, certainly influenced the start and perhaps the key of the work, and Frogley allows a fertile imagination to play round such matters as an early Solent piece, Holst's Egdon Heath, Vaughan Williams's incidental music to The mayor of Casterbridge the `ghostly drummer of Salisbury Plain' to construct a Hardyesque Pilgrim's Progress for the symphony, ending at the altar of Salisbury Cathedral. This may be so, and perhaps the final E major affirmation, undermined by the saxophones with their destructive Neapolitan doubts, throws down the gauntlet to whatever God might still be lurking there.

Whereas so much in the symphony had to be achieved through intensive labour (nor do we know how much was worried out at the keyboard or shaped itself in the composer's mind far from any manuscript paper), saxophones and. flugelhorn seem to have been essential from the outset. The saxophone had always a special significance for Vaughan Williams as something rotten, putrid or diabolical, a sound of overripe cheese. So it found place in Job and Symphony no.6. From the beginning of no.9 their presence causes tonal and emotional disquiet, and in the Scherzo they busy themselves in a sardonic dance of death, cavorting with ever more fiendish glee, till settling to what Vaughan Williams called a `Cats choral' in the trio. …

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