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I have always loved his shorter compositions such as the Lark Ascending, Fantasia on Greensleeves and Thomas Tallis Fantasia as well as the Oboe Concerto.

His symphonies have never clicked for me, but of course YMMV. One of them has already impressed you.
 

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I agree with an earlier comment that there isn't much "bad" to be had when dealing with a composer of RVW's stature. Listen to it all.

One problem with big boxes of "essential" music is there are next to nothing in the way of notes. So try looking up each piece on the internet and see if you can find some context, because context is important for RVW. The classic case is the 3rd symphony which was unfortunately titled "The Pastoral", and led a lot of people to dismiss it as an aimless trip through the pastures of England. We now know, from RVW's own comments, that it's an extended, rather desolate, elegy to the lost souls of WWI.

The other thing to keep in mind is the sheer variety of RVW's music. Too many people like to shove it all into the frisking-lambs-and-lonely-fens garbage can and slam down the lid. If you stand back and look, a lot of his music is quite wacky. A symphony about Antartica? An opera based on the Pilgrim's Progress? A tuba concerto? A piece for solo viola, wordless choir and orchestra (Flos Campi) inspired by the Song of Solomon? And just when you think his music is all tuneful larks and Tudor psalms, you hit something like the dissonant, savage fourth symphony, or the strange visionary 6th. So you have to keep adjusting your expectations.

As for my favourite pieces by RVW, it's usually the one I happen to be listening to.

Have a great voyage of discovery!
 

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I consider Vaughan Williams to be the greatest symphonist of the 20th century, Sibelius is a close second. The 1st, Sea Symphony is very much in the late romantic style and doesn't appeal to me. the 2nd, London Symphony is moving cautiously into the 20th century with sweeping romantic gestures and is quite lovely. It is a sonic panorama of turn of the century London, one can hear hackney cabs and squeeze box musicians busking on the bustling streets. The 3rd, Pastoral Symphony is a more somber modal and mellifluous work that, in part, is his benediction to those friends and colleagues he lost in WWI. It is his emphatic statement as a master of the symphonic form and unique melodic organization. As Michael Kennedy put it, "There is much ingenious use of rhythm to bind these elements..." (melodies)"...together, and marvelous diatonic counterpoint which has proved to be inimitable, though many have tried to imitate it." #4 is a towering 20th century edifice. It's furious rhythm and tonality is breathtaking. The Scherzo is a swirling dynamo that leads to an even more ferocious finale. His quotes about it are legendary, such as "I don't know whether I like it, but it's what I meant." The 5th symphony is an epiphany. From the first measures it breathes a serene peace like no other musical expression. This work is strongly related to his opera "Pilgrim's Progess", an egregiously neglected theatrical masterpiece. The last movement brings us back to the serenity of the opening statement by the horn section and builds to a glorious vision of celestial tranquility. Where the 4th is a symphonic rampage the 5th is an embrocation that reaches to the very soul. The only other work that is nearly as deeply moving is his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. From here Vaughan Williams continues delving and experimenting with the symphonic form like no other composer save for Sibelius. They both chose to express their musical intentions with a tonal palette, albeit stretched to its limits. The 6th encompasses grand vistas, mysterious and oracular orchestral utterances by separate instrumental families, demonic dances which are shadows of some of his music for Job and a final movement that has been mislabeled as a vision of a nuclear wasteland when in reality it was inspired by the "...rounded by a little sleep." quote from Shakespeare's Tempest. 7 is a wondrous and tragic musical rendering of Capt. Robert Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition. It utilizes music written for the 1948 film "Scott of the Antarctic. It is an immersive experience and never fails to chill one to the bone and immobilize the listener into stunned awe at the gargantuan and towering mountains of solid, sparkling menace. 8 and 9 are delightful and show Vaughan Williams indefatigable experimentation were not attenuated by his advancing age but they don't reach the inspired genius of symphonies 2 through 7. They would be splendid works perhaps even masterpieces by a lesser composer.
 

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Discussion Starter · #25 ·
I consider Vaughan Williams to be the greatest symphonist of the 20th century, Sibelius is a close second.
I really appreciate your input & detail. From all of the comments I've gotten, both yours and the others, I know that RVW's work is worth further pursuit, and you've given me enough to go on, so thank you!
 
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