Why a Symphony From 1935 Matters More Than Ever

by delarue

The events of 2020 under the lockdown are eerily similar to 1935. By then, the Nazi campaign of genocide had begun, with the mass murder of disabled and cripped people, all of them euthanized by the German medical establishment. Here in the US, the President recently announced a deal with the huge pharmacy conglomerate Wallgreens to kill off residents of nursing homes with the Bill Gates needle of death. When are the general public going to wake up? Eighty-five years ago, Europe didn’t until it was too late to stop the Nazi war machine. If that historical precedent holds true, we are in trouble. As Pastor Martin Niemoller famously recalled, “Then they went after the Jews. Then they came for us.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was premiered in 1935, by an earlier version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Martyn Brabbins, lifelong champion of the Romantic tradition, conducts them in this latest recording, which hasn’t hit the web yet. If there was specific content or narrative in his music, the composer usually made that very clear, and he didn’t do that in this case. Still, this symphony is chillingly a reflection of its time, and in that sense, a cautionary tale.

As this storm gathers momentum, chromatics that stop thisshort of frantic cede to restlessly circling, gusty variations that rise with an increasing unease: hindsight may be 20/20, but it’s impossible not to read rumors of war into this. Brabbins immediately dims the lights for the comforting nocturne that morphs out of it: could this be a reflection on the momentary honeymoon between wars for the English people?

Likewise, a stalking pulse from the strings rises to enigmatic luste, persistent disquiet disappearing in favor of twilit serenity in the second movement; yet it ends broodingly. A darkly bristling, distinctly Russian-tinged dance opens the third and transforms into a march in the last movement, albeit with suspiciously sarcastic humor. Again, Brabbins pulls the orchestra for a comforting lull, which doesn’t last. The Beethovenesque series of false endings grow more and more foreboding, to the point where the impact remains long beyond the final, seemingly sardonic blast of low brass.

Where is the 2020 counterpart to this troubled masterpiece? Probably still being written. The operative question is whether we’ll ever be able to hear it. In the UK in 1935 it was legal for an orchestra to perform in front of an audience..

This album opens with Vaughan Williams’ radically different “Pastoral” Symphony No. 3. As inspired by World War I gravesites as by the English countryside of the composer’s youth, it’s one of the quietest pieces in the symphonic repertoire, at least before the explosion of spectral music in the early 1980s.

The first movement comes across as sleepy time for heroes –an update on the wave motion the composer explored in his Sea Symphony – along with vast Dvorakian vistas. Maybe that influence explains the minor blues riff that anchors one of the main themes. The gentle, steadily ratcheting counterpoint introduced in the first movement comes further to the forefront in the more stark, spare, folksy second one. Alan Thomas’ long, restrained, distantly troubled trumpet solo is the highlight here.

Heroes wake up vociferously as the third movement gets underway, larks quickly ascend to the trees and some bustling and strutting ensues – yet quietly. Soprano Elizabeth Watts animatedly brings back the blues riffs over an almost imperceptible stillness to introduce the conclusion, rising to disorienting, fragmentary exchanges before the serene intertwine of the first movement returns. From there Brabbins meticulously leads the slow rise to a momentary triumph and descent into nocturnal content and contemplation, Watts adding celestial lustre at the end.

The record is also noteworthy for including the world premiere of Vaughan Williams’ previously unpublished cantata Saraband “Helen,” a setting of a Christopher Marlowe text about Helen of Troy. Brabbins’ arrangement is sober and understated; tenor David Butt Philip sings expressively over the increasingly bittersweet sweep of the orchestra and choir.