Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 3, published as A Pastoral Symphony and not numbered until later, was completed in 1922. Vaughan Williams’ initial inspiration to write this symphony came during World War I after hearing a bugler practising and accidentally playing an interval of a seventh instead of an octave; this ultimately led to the trumpet cadenza in the second movement.
The work is among the least performed of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, but it has gained the reputation of being a subtly beautiful elegy for the dead of World War I and a meditation on the sounds of peace. Like many of the composer’s works, the Pastoral Symphony is not programmatic, but its spirit is very evocative. None of the movements are particularly fast or upbeat (the composer himself described it as “four movements, all of them slow”),[This quote needs a citation] but there are isolated extroverted sections.
It was first performed in London on 16 January 1922, with Adrian Boult conducting.
The symphony was dismissed by Constant Lambert, who wrote that its “creation of a particular type of grey, reflective, English-landscape mood has outweighed the exigencies of symphonic form”. Peter Warlock’s often-quoted comment that “it is all just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate” was in fact a comment on Vaughan Williams’ style in general, and was not aimed specifically at A Pastoral Symphony, which he on the contrary described as “a truly splendid work” and “the best English orchestral music of this century”. Vaughan Williams emphasized, however, that the work is “not really Lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted” (i.e., English pastoral scenery); its reference is to the fields of France during World War I, where the composer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps.