If you hear movie soundtracks in this piece (or a bit of Downton Abbey), you’re not hearing things. Vaughan Williams was such a master at capturing undefinable moodiness that he inspired a whole generation of movie and TV score composers. I had once wanted to be among them based solely on his works. There isn’t a sound so lush as a Vaughan Williams string section; I don’t think it’s possible to cram any more instruments or harmonies in there. I particularly love the range of his orchestration at the beginning, from the lowest notes of the double basses to the highest notes of the violins. Combined with the vaguely eastern chord progression, and the solo oboe (a classic Vaughan Williams tell), it makes for a very evocative beginning. Until the strings settle into something a little more standard around 0:50, and we remember, oh right, we’re in England.
This particular symphony is an excellent gateway drug to the rest of his body of work. Vaughan Williams’s most famous pieces are The Lark Ascending and Fantasia by a Theme by Thomas Tallis, but you’d be better served by diving a little deeper. If you like this piece, check out his Norfolk Rhapsody, whose simplicity surely must have inspired Aaron Copland.