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The elusive first movement is followed by a scherzo scored for wind instruments only, complemented by a slow movement for singing strings. The pair of movements might be thought of as urban and agrarian respectively, the scherzo being comic and a bit grotesque, apposite to city-slickers and clowns, with march rhythms and oompah basses redolent of music-hall. Yet the end is odd [listen -- track 2, 2:35-3:35], for chromatic semitones endemic to the march-tunes are transmuted into the familiar semitonic wail (here from E to E flat or from F to E natural) that had proved so disruptive a force in the middle period symphonies. And the Eighth's scherzo, far from recovering buoyancy, vanishes in a pianissimo puff of smoke, as though triggered by a seaside-pier magician. Does this hint that 'Town' is illusory?

The complementary movement for strings suggests that this may be so, since the 'Country' movement invokes Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending - a bird who is also the human spirit which, upward-aspiring, sublimely fades into a vision rather than an illusion, in a melody for high cello, in 'heavenly' E major. The final Toccata brings us back to earth in a sturdy tune in D major, not minor, recalling the Bunyan-inspired hymnic dances that proliferate in the music of VW's middle years. Here the 'magic' instruments are triumphantly tintinnabulating bells, though festivity is tempered by a I, VI flat, II, I progression that Vaughan Williams describes as 'a slightly sinister exordium'; and it is this motif that forms the symphony's final cadence. Yet if the piece is not merely a manifestation of homo ludens, it sounds child-like in living in a present moment that is at once folkily English and globally ethnic. Magic renews innocence; and it is magic for an octogenarian to make midsummer music out of the winter of our discontent.

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Copyright © 26 May 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK






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