Revisiting the Past: Harmony, Structure and Narrative in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Piano Quintet in C Minor



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Vaughan Williams’s Piano Quintet in C minor is a rarity in the world of classical music: a complete multi-movement work by a major composer that was kept hidden from the light of day for eight decades after its premiere before being published and publicly presented once again. Because of the many years in which the work was unknown to performers and scholars, little has been written about the history, the structure, and the guiding influences on this piece, making it fertile ground for new research. This document aims to provide a better understanding of the piece from a historical and theoretical framework. Chapter 1 is an historical exploration of Vaughan Williams’s life around the time of the Quintet’s composition, in search of biographical clues that may explain why he removed the piece from the catalogue. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 explore the three movements of the Quintet from different perspectives. Chapter 2 investigates Vaughan Williams’s relinquishment of traditional structural tonal devices in favor of modal ones, as well as his use of formal structure—based on Hepokoski and Darcy’s Sonata Theory. Chapter 3 explores the concept of “Englishness” in the second movement, based on the framework of English pastoralism, and explores the dual meaning of Arcadia as it relates to expressive meaning in the second movement. Chapter 4 surveys the use of variations in the last movement and the movement’s relationship to Vaughan Williams’s Violin Sonata in A minor (1953), for which the composer used the same theme in the third movement. The concluding chapter, Chapter 5, investigates more closely the question of musical meaning in the Quintet, tracking the possible meaning of a single musical module throughout the three movements using the concepts of markedness and gesture, and tying together all the threads discussed in the previous chapters.



Vaughan Williams, Quintet, modal, gestures, narrative, pastoral, Arcadia, markedness