Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony (1934) has elicited much discussion regarding its aesthetic nature and sources of inspiration. Early critics associated the work’s dissonances with a concession to continental European musical modernism, or with a depiction of the political tensions of 1930s Europe. More recent commentaries have noted its references to Beethoven, one of which the composer admitted to in print. These commentators have argued either that these references constitute a continuation of the Beethovenian tradition in the twentieth century, or that they present a critique of the German composer. This essay adds a new argument in favor of the latter position. First, it examines Vaughan Williams’s writings, which reveal respect for Beethoven’s stature, sharp antipathy toward his aesthetic, and a tendency to negatively measure him against Johann Sebastian Bach. Next, it considers one of the main recurring motives of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, a slightly altered musical BACH cipher, through the lens of these writings. It concludes that the use and placement of this motive at the points in the Fourth Symphony which most strongly recall Beethoven are intentionally mischievous, and echo musically Vaughan Williams’s Bach-aided digs at Beethoven in prose.
College of Education
Department of Music
Vaughan Williams; Beethoven; Symphony; Reception; Analysis
Education | Musicology
Ross, Ryan M., "“Blaspheming Beethoven?”: The Altered BACH Motive in Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony" (2019). College of Education Publications and Scholarship. 24.