For Anzac Day: Vaughan Williams – A Pastoral Symphony – Manze

Vaughan Williams wrote this on returning from the trenches of the First World War. The title, ‘A Pastoral Symphony’ , is, as one recent writer noted, misleading:

throughout this symphony there’s a disturbing doubleness, in which images and ideas that are usually thought to provide consolation instead suggest emotional instability and ambiguity

Williams was technically too old to serve, but went as a medic and ambulance officer: his wife was quoted years later as saying it left him with “vivid awareness of how men died.” 

Soldier leaves buried comrades, Anzac Cove. From the NZ 

There’s certainly the soaring sense of space one would expect from something with the word ‘pastoral’ in the title.

It is about hope, certainly. But there is also the mood of threat and danger of No Man’s Land, and, as the symphony moves on, a colossal, almost unbearable grief.

I can never hear the voice in the Lento section without thinking of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem of Doomed Youth’


The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 

What candles may be held to speed them away?

It sounds like an 18 year old youth, crucified in No Man’s Land.

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