Notes 59.2 (2002) 350-352
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Vaughan Williams's Ninth Symphony. By Alain Frogley. (Oxford Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. [xxiv, 313 p. ISBN 0-19-816284-7. $74.] Discography, bibliography, index.
Vaughan Williams. By Simon Heffer. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000. [167 p. ISBN 1-55553-472-4. $26.95.] Discography, bibliography,
Ralph Vaughan Williams has been undergoing a significant revaluation in recent years. Once dismissed as a cozy establishment figure whose narrow musical nationalism embodied an impediment to musical modernism in Britain, he is now increasingly viewed as a figure of major significance with a distinctive contemporary voice addressed squarely to the modern predicament. This new attitude—which in many respects represents a return to the view of the composer proclaimed during his lifetime—is reflected to varying degrees in the two books under review here.
Alain Frogley is as responsible as anyone for the recent changes in Vaughan Williams's fortunes. Author of many articles on the composer and editor of Vaughan Williams Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), he has dedicated himself to exposing the misconceptions and half-truths of received tradition in a sustained effort to revive the composer's reputation. His most significant work in this respect has been on the details of Vaughan Williams's critical reception, but the underlying project of rehabilitation informs nearly everything he has written. This is particularly true of the present monograph, which constitutes a powerful defense of one of Vaughan Williams's greatest and most unjustly neglected works, the Ninth Symphony.
Composed in 1956 and 1957, the Ninth appeared at the very end of the composer's life, precisely when critical decline was setting in. Accordingly, the work has been slighted and, despite growing admirers, is considered generally inferior to his earlier symphonies. This judgment has not deterred Frogley who, with passionate advocacy, undertakes the most detailed examination of a Vaughan Williams work to appear in print. Each of the four movements is given its own chapter and subjected to an exhaustive formal analysis that considers rhythmic pacing and textural balance no less than thematic interrelationship and tonal planning. The picture that emerges is of a highly integrated symphony that holds a strong claim to be counted among Vaughan Williams's tautest works.
Frogley's concern is not just to demonstrate the virtues of the completed work, but also to combat criticism directed at the Ninth (often expressed about the late music generally), that Vaughan Williams "lacked self-criticism, composing more out of habit than focused creative purpose" (p. 5). To this end, he embarks on an examination of the sketches and working drafts that the composer, against his usual practice, preserved for future generations. Indeed, the focus here is fundamentally on the sketches—the book is a new addition to the Oxford Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure series—and Frogley pursues a meticulous examination of this voluminous material, describing manuscript sources, tracing the composer's working methods, and offering a running commentary on each movement as it progressed. The results show that, far from being composed [End Page 350] unreflectively, the Ninth Symphony emerged only after protracted compositional effort. Such crucial aspects of the work as the trajectory of rhythmic acceleration and deceleration in the first movement (ultimately imparting a sense of exhausted struggle), the precise formal balance between the two primary sections of the last movement, even the tight melodic interrelationships connecting many themes (whether within movements or across them)—all these turn out, upon examination, to have been subject throughout to much alteration, or to have emerged only after much preliminary experimentation. The work's tonal plan especially—E in opposition to its upper and lower semitone neighbors, with C playing an important mediating role between them—appears to have cost Vaughan Williams much labor: the sketchbooks show that tonal modifications in one movement often prompted revisions in others, and subsequent drafts of the finale reveal a constant tinkering with tonal emphases in order to obtain the "right" balance. Far from indicating a lack of concern with detail...