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Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Wednesday, June 24

Vaughan Williams's Fifth

Synopsis

In wartime London, on today's date in 1943, a Promenade Concert featured the first performance of the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composer himself conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Queen's Hall, the traditional home of the annual summertime Proms concerts, had been destroyed by German bombers two years earlier. The Proms concerts had moved into a new and larger venue, the Royal Albert Hall, where the series continues to this day.

For the 1943 season, Proms programs started earlier than usual, so that concert goers could get home before the nightly air raids on the city. To London audiences troubled by war fears and many sleepless nights of German bombing, the serene musical world of the Vaughan Williams Fifth must have seemed a real blessing. It's not a "wartime" symphony in the conventional sense, full of defiance and bluster, but rather an evocation and affirmation of England's musical past, blending hints of 16th century hymn tunes and modal folk melodies into symphonic form.

For some time, Vaughan Williams had been at work on an opera based on "The Pilgrim's Progress," a 17th century allegorical tale by the Puritan writer John Bunyan. Some of the tunes and motives from his projected opera ended up in the symphony, along with a sense of faith and optimism in the face of adversity that must have deeply affected the first audience to hear the work.

Music Played in Today's Program

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958) Symphony No. 5 London Philharmonic; Bernard Haitink, cond. EMI 55487

Additional Information

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