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<<  -- 3 --  Wilfrid Mellers    SECOND SIGHT


The Shakespearean reference reminds us that, if the Eighth Symphony is a comedy in the same sense as is A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Ninth Symphony is a tragedy that, like Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, at least turns on potentially spring-like rebirth. The symphony has, however, a more specific literary analogy in that its genesis is connected with, though not programmatically illustrative of, a great tragic novel of the 19th century, Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Vaughan Williams was characteristically wary of admitting to any overtly programmatic intention, though he did concede that Tess was a novel that had obsessed him in youth. Certainly we aren't surprised that the Ninth should contain references back to the climacteric Sixth in the same purgatorial key of E minor, nor that the work's opening should also recall the Seventh (Antarctic) Symphony that marked a nadir in Vaughan Williams's lifelong quest for spiritual serenity, if not salvation. Like the Sixth, the Ninth is dominated by the crucial interval of the tritone, and attains its first-movement climax a tritone away from E, in B flat major-minor. When an ultimate resolution is attained in celestial E major, it's one of the supreme moments in Vaughan Williams's work, along with comparable passages in the Sixth Symphony and in Job. Yet the end of the movement [listen -- track 5, 9:01-10:00] remains paradoxical; for the music, refusing to cheat with any wish-fulfilment paradise, fades rather than ends on a wide-spaced, multiply-divided, mysteriously soft chord of E minor that sounds, like Keats's fairyland, possibly perilous and certainly forlorn.

Copyright © 26 May 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK






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