The Symphony No. 9 in E minor was the last symphony written by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He composed it from 1956 to 1957 and it was given its premiere performance in London by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent on 2 April 1958, in the composer's eighty-sixth year. It was subsequently performed on 5 August 1958 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Malcolm Sargent at a Promenade Concert. Vaughan Williams died three weeks later, on 26 August, the very day on which the symphony was due to be recorded for the first time, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
Vaughan Williams's original idea was to create a programmatic symphony based on Thomas Hardy's book Tess of the d'Urbervilles, even though the programmatic elements eventually disappeared as work on the composition progressed. Existing sketches clearly indicate that, in the early stages of composition, certain passages related to specific people and events in the novel: in some of the manuscripts, the first movement is headed "Wessex Prelude", and the heading "Tess" appears above sketches for the second movement.
The work is in four movements:
The opening theme of the slow movement comes from music Vaughan Williams had composed more than fifty years earlier: A Sea Symphony and an even earlier, unpublished tone poem from 1904 called The Solent.
The orchestra includes:
- Woodwinds: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets (in B♭), bass clarinet (in B♭), two bassoons, contrabassoon, two alto saxophones (in E♭), tenor saxophone (in B♭)
- Brass: four horns (in F), two trumpets (in B♭), flugelhorn (in B♭), three trombones, tuba
- Percussion: timpani, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, large gong, tam-tam, deep bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta
- Strings: two harps, and strings
Vaughan Williams's program note accompanying the premiere performance remarked thus:
The usual symphony orchestra is used, with the addition of three saxophones and flugelhorn. This beautiful and neglected instrument is not usually allowed in the select circles of the orchestra and has been banished to the brass band, where it is allowed to indulge in the bad habit of vibrato to its heart's content. While in the orchestra it will be obliged to sit up and play straight. The saxophones, also, are not expected, except one place in the scherzo, to behave like demented cats, but are allowed to be their own romantic selves.
Very early on in the first movement the three saxophones play a chorale-like passage in chordal harmony, perhaps to emphasise that this will not be the sort of dance band music which the saxophone produces in the scherzo of his Sixth Symphony.
According to Vaughan Williams biographer Michael Kennedy, at its first performances "there was no denying the coolness of the critics' reception of the music. Its enigmatic mood puzzled them, and more attention was therefore paid to the use of the flugel horn and to the flippant programme note." Critic and composer R. Murray Schafer remarked that the work is notable only "because of [Vaughan Williams's] reputation as a symphonist, and because the composition of the 9th shortly before his death prolongs a certain well-known legend" and "[found] it difficult...to discover much more than a numerical value in the work." He went on to complain about the saxophones and flugelhorn that "all this extra color seems to be employed simply in thickening the middle-orchestra texture, the one area of the orchestra which does not need extra support." Unenthusiastic early reaction, along with the unusual instrumental requirements, may have kept the symphony from having the kind of sustained performance history that most of the others have enjoyed. The flugelhorn player at the premiere was David Mason, who remarked that all the press coverage was about the flugelhorn, to the detriment of serious discussion of the symphony as a work.
The critical reception given to the US premiere of the work under Leopold Stokowski in Carnegie Hall on 25 September 1958 was more favourable. In the New York Times, Harold C. Schoenberg wrote that "the symphony is packed with strong personal melody from beginning to end ... A mellow glow suffuses the work, as it does the work of many veteran composers who seem to gaze retrospectively over their careers ... In any case, the Ninth Symphony is a masterpiece." In the Musical Courier, G. Waldrop described it as "a work of beauty ... lyricism, sheer tonal beauty and thorough craftsmanship were in evidence throughout."
The differences in the initial critical reactions to the music may have been partly due to the performances. In his 1987 biography of Sir Adrian Boult, Michael Kennedy referred to Sargent's as having been "an unsatisfactory first performance." Percy Grainger, however, who was in Carnegie Hall for the US premiere, told Ursula Vaughan Williams that Stokowski's performance "seemed a perfect one in every way and the exquisite beauty and cosmic quality of this immortal work struck me as being ideally realised." Alain Frogley considers Vaughan Williams's last symphony to be one of his greatest works. Hugh Ottaway and Alain Frogley call this symphony "the most impressive achievement" of Vaughan Williams's final decade and remark that "both outer movements employ highly original structures – the carefully graded and layered engineering of rhythmic momentum in the first movement is especially striking – and the work offers one of Vaughan Williams's most impressive essays in finely balanced tonal and modal ambiguities."
- Sargent — Royal Philharmonic Orchestra — Pristine Audio XR PASC 234 (Royal Festival Hall, April 2, 1958; + Mitropoulos's recording of A London Symphony)
- Boult — London Philharmonic Orchestra — Everest SDBR 3006 (Walthamstow Assembly Hall, Aug. 10–26, 1958)
- Stokowski — unnamed orchestra — Cala Records CACD 0539 (Carnegie Hall, Sept. 25, 1958; + music by Creston, Hovhaness + Riegger)
- Boult — London Philharmonic Orchestra — HMV ASD 2581 (Kingsway Hall, Dec. 18–23, 1969; + Fantasia quasi variazione on the Old 104th Psalm Tune)
- Previn — London Symphony Orchestra — RCA Red Seal SB 6842 (Kingsway Hall, Jan. 6–9, 1971; + Three Portraits from The England of Elizabeth)
- Rozhdestvensky — USSR State Symphony Orchestra — Melodiya CD 10-02170-6 (Philharmonia Building, Leningrad, May 5, 1989; + Symphony No. 8)
- Thomson — London Symphony Orchestra — Chandos CHAN 8941 (St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, Nov. 8–9, 1990; + Piano Concerto)
- Slatkin — Philharmonia Orchestra — RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-61196-2 (Abbey Road, June 3, 1991; + Symphony No. 8 + Flourish for Glorious John)
- Handley — Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra — EMI Eminence CD EMX 2230 (Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, March 5–6, 1994; + Symphony No. 6)
- Davis-A — BBC Symphony Orchestra — Teldec 4509-98463-2 (St Augustine's Church, London, April 26–27, 1995; + Job)
- Bakels — Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra — Naxos 8.550738 (Poole Arts Centre, Sept. 7–13, 1996; + Symphony No. 5)
- Haitink — London Philharmonic — EMI CD 5 57086 2 (Abbey Road, April 2000; + Symphony No. 8)
- Davis-A — BBC Symphony Orchestra — BBC Music Magazine MM 333 (Royal Albert Hall, Aug. 26, 2008; + music by Parry)
- Davis-A — Bergen Philharmonic — Chandos CHSA 5180 (Bergen, May 2–6, 2016; + Job)
- Manze-A — Royal Liverpool Philharmonic - ONYX, ONYX4190 (Recorded 28 September 2018 at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool + Sinfonia Antartica)
- "Vaughan Williams and Thomas Hardy: 'Tess' and the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony" by Alain Frogley (Music and Letters, 1987)
- Stumpf II, Robert. "CD REVIEW: Leopold Stokowski Conducts New Music". Classical.net. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
- Michael Kennedy, The Works of Vaughan Williams, second ed., Oxford University Press, 1964, pp. 342–43
- R. Murray Schafer, Notes, second series, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Dec. 1959), pp. 150–51
- "David Mason" by Anne McAneney in The Brass Herald, p. 38, Issue 18, May–July 2007, ISSN 1746-1472
- Oliver Daniel: Stokowski – A Counterpoint of View – 1982).
- Alain Frogley, Vaughan Williams's Ninth Symphony (Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure), Oxford University Press, 2001
- Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, No. 39, June 2007.[full citation needed]
- "Vaughan Williams, Ralph", by Hugh Ottaway and Alain Frogley in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).