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Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 8 in D minor was composed between 1953 and 1955. It was the first of his symphonies which Vaughan Williams numbered.[1] Sir John Barbirolli conducted the premiere of the piece on 2 May 1956, with the Hallé Orchestra at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.

Symphony No. 8 is the shortest of Vaughan Williams' nine symphonies, with a typical performance taking just under a half hour, yet it is remarkably inventive, especially in the composer's experiments in sonority. Not only does he use a much-expanded percussion section, including "all the 'phones and 'spiels known to the composer"[This quote needs a citation] (as well as three tuned gongs, the same as were used in Puccini's Turandot), but the two central movements use only the wind section and string section respectively. Symphony No. 4 is the only other one of his symphonies to end loudly. (The others all have quiet conclusions, often with the Vaughan Williams "fingerprint" niente.)



The symphony is scored for a large orchestra including:


The work is in four movements:

1. Fantasia (Variazioni senza tema) (variations without a theme) (in D minor) – the composer also referred to this as being "seven variations in search of a theme."[2] Even though the variation structure predominates the acute listener may notice elements of sonata form.[clarification needed]


2. Scherzo alla marcia (for wind instruments only) (in C minor) – this short, quick march (with trio) is somewhat akin to that of a British military band. The trio section revisits Vaughan Williams's "pastoral" style.


3. Cavatina (for bowed strings only) (in E minor) – This movement, in a five-part rondo form, has a meditative character and includes important solo passages for violin and cello. The main theme bears a clear resemblance, which Vaughan Williams acknowledged[citation needed], to the "Passion" chorale (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded) that Bach used several times in the St. Matthew Passion and elsewhere. This movement closes quietly in E major.


4. Toccata (in D major / D minor) – the finale (entitled Toccata to indicate its virtuoso nature) contains much exuberant writing for the percussion section. Harmonically, the movement seems uncertain of whether to be in D minor or D major. The movement ends loudly with a D, in a D Aeolian (natural minor) context.


Performance historyEdit

The first performance was given by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 2 May 1956. This was recorded by the BBC and subsequently released on disc. Eugene Ormandy gave the work its U.S. premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra on 5 October 1956. The following year, on 30 June Leopold Stokowski conducted it with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, with the composer present in the Royal Box. Charles Munch conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of the work on 31 October 1957, at Symphony Hall. Ten more performances by the same team followed within three weeks in several cities.


  • Barbirolli/Hallé (+ Overture to The Wasps + Tuba Concerto + Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus" + Fantasia on "Greensleeves"). The Barbirolli Society SJB 1055 (BBC rec. Free Trade Hall, 2 May 1956)
  • Barbirolli/Hallé. Pye Nixa NCT 17000 (Free Trade Hall, 19 June 1956)
  • Boult/LPO (+ Partita for Double String Orchestra). Decca LXT 5314 (Kingsway Hall, 7–8 September 1956)
  • Munch/Boston SO (+ music by Ravel + d'Indy). Pristine Audio XR PASC 368 (Music Shed, Tanglewood, 2 August 1958)
  • Barbirolli/Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (+ music by many others). West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6033 (Carnegie Hall, 3 January 1959)
  • Barbirolli/Hallé (+ music by others). Ermitage ERM 181-2 (Teatro Kursaal, Lugano, 11 April 1961)
  • Stokowski/BBC SO (+ Sargent’s recording of Symphony No. 4). Carlton BBC Radio Classics 15656 91312 (Royal Albert Hall, 15 September 1964)
  • Barbirolli/Hallé (+ music by others). BBC Legends BBCL 4100-2 (Royal Albert Hall, 11 August 1967)
  • Previn/LSO (+ Symphony No. 6). RCA Victor SB 6769 (Kingsway Hall, 18–20 March 1968)
  • Boult/LPO (+ Concerto in C for 2 Pianos and Orchestra). HMV ASD 2469 (Kingsway Hall, 25 September and 23 December 1968, 26 March 1969)
  • Boult/LPO (+ music by Beethoven). EMI Classics DVD 094638 845690 (Royal Festival Hall, 12 October 1972)
  • Rozhdestvensky/USSR StSO (+ Symphony No. 9). Melodiya CD 10-02170-6 (Philharmonia Building, Leningrad, 30 April 1989)
  • Thomson/LSO (+ Two Hymn-Tune Preludes + Fantasia on "Greensleeves" + Partita for Double String Orchestra). Chandos CHAN 8828 (St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, 9–10 October 1989)
  • Slatkin/Philharmonia (+ Symphony No. 9 + Flourish for Glorious John). RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-61196-2 (Abbey Road, 3 June 1991)
  • Handley/RLPO (+ A London Symphony). EMI Eminence CD EMX 2209 (Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 3–4 March 1992)
  • Davis-A/BBC SO (+ A London Symphony). Teldec 4509-90858-2 (St Augustine’s Church, London, March 1993)
  • Bakels/Bournemouth SO (+ Sinfonia antartica). Naxos 8.550737 (Poole Arts Centre, 6–7 September 1996)
  • Haitink/LPO (+ Symphony No. 9). EMI CD 5 57086 2 (Abbey Road, April 2000)
  • Hickox/LSO (+ Symphony No. 6 + Nocturne). Chandos CHSA 5016 (All Saints Church, Tooting, 21–22 January 2003)
  • Jurowski/LPO (+ Wigglesworth's recording of Symphony No. 4). LPO CD 0082 (Royal Festival Hall, 24 September 2008)
  • Elder/Hallé (+ Symphony No. 5). Hallé CD HLL 7533 (MediaCityUK, Salford, 3 February 2012)
  • Manze/RLPO (+ A London Symphony). Onyx 4155 (Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 9 October 2015)


  1. ^ Kennedy, M. (1964). A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaugham Williams. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315452-8.
  2. ^ Holmes, P. (1997). Vaughan Williams (Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers). Omnibus Press. ISBN 978-0711965263.