The Symphony No. 5 is considered by many listeners to be Ralph Vaughan Williams' finest work. Written between 1938 and 1943, in style it represents a shift away from the violent dissonance of the Symphony No. 4 and a return to the more romantic style of the earlier Pastoral Symphony.
Many of the musical themes in the Symphony No. 5 derive from Vaughan Williams' then-unfinished operatic work, The Pilgrim's Progress. This opera, or "morality", as Vaughan Williams preferred to call it, had been in gestation for many years and the composer had temporarily abandoned it at the time the symphony was conceived. In spite of its origins, the symphony is without programmatic context, and is in the form of an extended development of musical themes from the morality rather than an attempt to cast it directly into symphonic form.
Although nominally in the key of D major, large parts of the Symphony No. 5 are in fact in C major, or simultaneously in C and D. Further confusing the issue, early piano scores described the work as being in the key of G. The symphony is scored for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, two French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings, and is dedicated to Jean Sibelius.
The Symphony No. 5 is structured in fairly typical four-movement form.
- I. Preludio. The symphony opens with a distinctive horn call in D major, from which the key of the symphony as a whole is taken. Several of the musical themes in this movement are taken from Act I Scene I of The Pilgrim's Progress, particularly the opening dialog between Pilgrim and Evangelist. A "Dresden Amen" theme appears towards the close of this movement.
- II. Scherzo. This short movement is marked by a galloping, dance-like rhythm punctuated with a series of raucous blasts from the woodwinds and brass. It concludes with a feathery motif of rising 4ths.
- III. Romanza. The primary themes in this movement are borrowed from the opening of Act I Scene 2 of The Pilgrim's Progress ("The House Beautiful"). The opening cor anglais solo is taken virtually without change from the morality. Pilgrim's lyric sung to this melody, "He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death", was originally used by Vaughan Williams as an inscription on this movement; while the contrasting agitated theme of the central section is taken from Pilgrim's lyric, "Save me! Save me, Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear". Rising 4ths again appear as connecting passages. This movement is the spiritual core of the symphony, and indeed of Vaughan Williams' repertoire as a whole.
- IV. Passacaglia. Although this movement begins with the repetitive bass line characteristic of the passacaglia form, Vaughan Williams quickly abandons it. The triumphant primary melody of the passacaglia is borrowed from Pilgrim's dialog with Interpreter in the second half of "The House Beautiful" scene, while the fanfare motif is reminiscent of "The Arming of the Pilgrim" in Act II Scene 1. This transitions to a return of the themes from the first movement of the symphony, which are resolved into a quiet valediction played first by the woodwinds and then by the upper strings.
The Symphony No. 5 was premiered on June 24, 1943 at a Proms Concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer.