Form, Continuity, and Disjunction in Vaughan Williams's Symphonies

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2022

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Abstract

This dissertation examines the function of syntactic discontinuity in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s symphonies. After establishing a given syntax— defined by the replicated interactions within and between parameters—Vaughan Williams introduces discontinuity through transformations in pitch language, rhythmic character, phrase organization, or timbral profile. Shifts in the features of an established discourse articulate formal boundaries at local and larger levels. The four works examined here—A London Symphony (1912), the Pastoral Symphony (1922), Symphony No. 4 (1934), and Symphony No. 6 (1947)—present especially clear cases of discontinuity, though similar processes occur in all nine of the composer’s symphonies. A London Symphony employs abrupt changes in pitch language and reordered themes to evoke the fractured temporality of urban soundscapes. Discontinuities in the Pastoral Symphony typically assume a static character. Gestural pauses reflect the sonic backdrop of warfare against which Vaughan Williams conceived the symphony: the steady bombardment on the Great War’s Western Front and the occasional reprieves that telegraphed safety. Rhythmic and metric disjunctions pervade Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6. In Symphony No. 4, coexisting autonomous gestures create stratified disjunctions that position the work between symphonic and fugal traditions. Symphony No. 6 is similarly active in rhythmic and pitch language. Adopting Harold Krebs’s analytic framework for grouping and displacement dissonances, the analysis charts irrepressible—and structural—challenges to notated meters. Through sustained analytic readings, this study documents the centrality of disjunction in Vaughan Williams’s symphonic practice as well as the varied means by which it is constructed. Despite their starkly different compositional vocabularies, the selected works retain discontinuity as a central syntactic feature and formal-expressive resource.

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Churchill, Jonathan (2022). Form, Continuity, and Disjunction in Vaughan Williams's Symphonies. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25237.

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