One of the cherished paradoxes of symphonic music is of course its ability to communicate both deeply and abstractly. Meanings can be at once profound and multiple. Some of the 20th century’s most prolific symphonists turned this to their advantage through a play of revelation and concealment. That is, works in a resolutely public genre derived weight in part from the perceived presence of veiled private truths.
Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 6 of 1948, which is being performed this week by the BSO, is just such a work, one whose urgency of expression tends to light up our semantic search beams. We sense that music of such violence and bleakness must surely be about something. Many have heard in the unalloyed nihilism of its final movement a statement on the ravages of the Second World War, but the composer himself by and large refused to tip his hand.