Symphony No. 8 (Vaughan Williams)

Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 8 in D minor was composed between 1953 and 1955. It was the first of his symphonies which Vaughan Williams numbered.[1] Sir John Barbirolli conducted the premiere of the piece on 2 May 1956, with the Hallé Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy gave the work its U.S. premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra on 5 October 1956. The following year, on 30 June 1957, Leopold Stokowski conducted it with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, the composer being present in the Royal Box.

The Eighth Symphony is the shortest of Vaughan Williams' nine symphonies, with a typical performance taking just under a half hour, yet it is remarkably inventive, especially in the composer's experiments in sonority. Not only does he use a much-expanded percussion section, including "all the 'phones and 'spiels known to the composer" (as well as three tuned gongs, the same as were used in Puccini's Turandot), but the two central movements use only the wind section and string section respectively. The Fourth symphony is the only other one of his symphonies to end loudly. (The others all have quiet conclusions, often with the Vaughan Williams "fingerprint" niente.)

The symphony is scored for a large orchestra including:

The work is in four movements:

1. Fantasia (Variazioni senza tema) (variations without a theme) (in D minor) – the composer also referred to this as being "seven variations in search of a theme."[2] Even though the variation structure predominates the acute listener may notice elements of sonata form.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \key d \minor \time 6/8 \tempo "Moderato" 4. = 60 << { s2. | r4 r8 <a f d>4\p <c g e cis>8 } \\ { d,8\f( g e a4.)~ | a2. } >> <a f d>4 <c g e cis>8 <a f d>4 r8 }

2. Scherzo alla marcia (for wind instruments only) (in C minor) – this short, quick march (with trio) is somewhat akin to that of a British military band. The trio section revisits Vaughan Williams's "pastoral" style.

 \relative c' { \clef bass \key c \minor \time 2/4 \tempo "Allegro all marcia" 4 = 108 \partial 4*1 g8-.\f des16( f) | c8-. g'-. c,-. g'-. | c,16( des ees f ges aes bes ces | bes ces bes aes c8) }

3. Cavatina (for bowed strings only) (in E minor) – This movement, in a five-part rondo form, has a meditative character and includes important solo passages for violin and cello. The main theme bears a clear resemblance, which Vaughan Williams acknowledged, to the "Passion" chorale (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded) that Bach used several times in the St. Matthew Passion and elsewhere. This movement closes quietly in E major.

 \relative c' { \clef bass \key e \minor \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \tempo "Lento espressivo" 4 = 63 b\p( e4.) d8( \times 2/3 { c b a) } | b2 fis'4( g~ | \times 2/3 { g8 fis e } \times 2/3 { g fis d } e fis g, a | b4.) }

4. Toccata (in D major / D minor) – the finale (entitled Toccata to indicate its virtuoso nature) contains much exuberant writing for the percussion section. Harmonically, the movement seems uncertain of whether to be in D minor or D major. The movement ends loudly with a D, in a D Aeolian (natural minor) context.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \key d \major \time 3/4 \tempo "Moderato Maestoso" 4 = 144 << { d2\ff b4 } \\ { r4 a fis } >> <a e> fis4. <b d,>8 | <a e>4 fis e | d2(\p <f d bes>4~ | <f d bes> <e d c>2) | d16 }


  1. Kennedy, M. (1964). A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaugham Williams. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315452-8.
  2. Holmes, P. (1997). Vaughan Williams (Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers). Omnibus Press. ISBN 978-0711965263.
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