Alnwick, Music Society

St James's URC Church
St James's URC Church
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Instructive evening

As part of a series covering great symphonists of the 20th Century, chairman Martin Gillham introduced members of Alnwick Recorded Music Society to the first six symphonies of the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams was musically a late developer, not finding his true voice until his late 30s.

His first symphony, a Sea Symphony, was inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman. Martin had covered this largely choral symphony in some detail at an earlier meeting, but played a brief extract of the first movement as a reminder of its character.

Vaughan Williams’ second symphony, his London Symphony, was published in 1913. Although he wished this to be seen as absolute music, it contains many descriptive elements. The sounds of Westminster chimes could be clearly heard in a recording of the opening of the first movement.

The third symphony he called A Pastoral Symphony. This refers to the French countryside where he was based as a medic during the First World War. The music reflects the sadness and horror of wartime and loss. Again, Martin selected a recording of the opening of the first movement to give a taste of the feelings engendered by this work.

The fourth symphony, considered to be one of his greatest works, introduced an element of dissonance which shocked some of its listeners at first hearing. Vaughan Williams himself said: “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant”. A recording of the first movement demonstrated its angry and dark mood, engendered by the hard economic times of the 1930s.

Martin then jumped to the sixth symphony, written between 1944 and 1947, a period during which the composer was also working on music for war films. Perhaps for this reason some critics called it a war symphony. Part of the first movement was played so that the audience could judge for itself.

In the second half of the programme, the entire fifth symphony was played.

This is generally considered to be his finest symphony and, despite the fact that it was composed during the Second World War, it is a confident and radiant work, carrying hope of the benediction of peace. It provided a fitting end to an enjoyable and instructive evening of great music.

All recordings were performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the late Richard Hickox.

At the next meeting, to be held on June 14, at 7.30pm, at St James’s United Reformed Church in Pottergate, Cliff Pettit will provide a musical journey through Europe.