At the beginning of June 1940 the Germans advanced to the French capital. In panic the population fled to the south, the so-called 'Exode'. Subsequently the authorities ordered the evacuation of those that had stayed behind, so Vermeulen and his wife had little choice but to leave their hearth and home. It was a rough five-day journey (they walked more than 200 kilometres) over roads that were regularly attacked and bombed by planes. After the Germans had caught up with the fleeing Parisians, it was more than a week before the Vermeulens were back home. That was on Sunday 30 June. The following day, 1 July, Vermeulen made a start with the work. When the symphony was completed, on 2 June 1941, he titled it Les victoires: "While he was arranging the sounds, there had not been a single minute that he had not thought of the numerous conquests of those who had to bring off the victory."
As far as form is concerned the Fourth Symphony is one of Vermeulen's most systematic works. This is mainly due to the way that six clearly distinguishable themes are distributed over the composition. The fifth-relationship between the tonal centres of the various movements also contributes to the clear structure.
A long prologue, consisting of one, then two and eventually three melodies that dash around in an accelerating motion above a droning ostinato (tonic c), leads to the exposition of three contrasting themes. The first stands out through its rhythm and intervals. The second is a long drawn out, lyrical melodic line that bears a resemblance to the Boléro by Ravel – a work that Vermeulen greatly admired and that may have inspired him. The third theme is entirely different: a chorale in long note-values with the blended sound of all the woodwinds amidst lively counter-melodies in the strings. The exposition ends with the melisma and the pedal point (now on g) from the prologue.
The slow second movement presents the fourth theme as a passacaglia that gradually becomes more prominent. The fifth theme, a lament, is a transformation of the first theme: the intervals are inverted and the note-values are doubled. While it is continued and developed, fanfare-like insertions gain the upper hand; they set up the tempo for the third movement. This movement starts with the sixth theme, a lively march in F-major, alternated with variations of previous material. Finally the three opening themes return, unchanged and easily recognisable, this time in the order 2-1-3, after which Vermeulen combines theme 1 (fast) with theme 5 (slow), an example of masterly counterpoint. The coda is reminiscent of the cadence-like progression of chords from the prologue, and with a long pedal point c is reaffirmed as the tonic of the work. All in all this symphony is far more tonal than the Second and the Third. Its subject with which Vermeulen at the beginning of the Second World War wanted to attest to optimism, vitality and unbroken confidence in the future makes it more accessible and appealing as well.
For the premiere on 30 September 1949 he wrote the following programme notes:
"From a restlessly murmuring noise of woodwinds and brass that gradually swells around a tonic c and at its culmination point condenses into a series of lapidary chords, three themes emerge in succession. Each of these themes forms a lyrical song that expresses a different mood. The first propels forward; the second accelerates; the third is contemplative and elegiac. While these three moods develop neither the speed of the movement, nor the urgency that created it diminish.
Thus the musical action has started and one gets an overall view of its inner motives. It is not continued immediately. The idea remembers the impulses from which the action originated, that flutter of improvised noise, those dazzling snatches of roaring sound, which carry on in the same firm rhythm. Here the voices circle around a tonic g, but this time they are not set off by a series of stable chords, but they suddenly break off in the middle of the whirl.
Then the action continues to the beat of a slow march and with a new theme which against a backdrop of softly spirited melodies passes through the various stages of a gentle emotion that, ardent and shining, reaches its full scale. We do not yet know where these intonations will lead us.
But as if a forgotten feeling secretly reawakens, the suggestion of silent shining festivity culminates in a deeper expression, rising from the secrecy of the heart, and almost unnoticeably the procession illuminated by a summer morning changes into a funeral march.
The melody that marks this turn is a variation of the first of the three themes that started the musical action. In its tragic appearance it expresses desire and determination as well as lamentation and mourning. Every time it has sounded, it is alternated by the summon of clarions, that drive it to more vehement desiring that, ever increasing, rises to its paroxysm.
A last drive of propelling signals extends into a war song. The dead do not die completely. They live on in us who want the same and have to conquer that for which they made such a sacrifice. The war song that answers them is in turn passionate and contemplative, strong and fragile, resounding and faint, close and far away, breeze and storm. Forming the background against its own arousing theme, previous manifestations reappear, which became a melody. Everything we have experienced, can be heard again in a more exalted way, including the long cantilena that at the beginning of the musical action expressed sense. Filling the whole horizon with a calm and extensive sound, it floats by as a contemplative chorale by all the woodwinds and brass instruments. Against this broad and serene plan, the strings have already started their own hymns in an expectation and promise of happiness.
Fulfilment is on its way, but has not yet been attained. In the bright shine of a hesitant chiaroscuro the heart contemplates the feelings that led it. They were good. They build up with a soft and mysterious force. Like a hurricane they break in a dithyramb of joy, while the theme that drove on in the first act of the symphony, joins that same melody that sung the praises of the fallen and their sacrifice. One song is low, the other is high, each leaning on the other, completing their work together.
The epilogue starts with the same series of firm, pregnant chords that stopped the noise with which the symphony started. A chorus of melodic jubilations - once again sounding over the tonic c and supported by counter-strophes that paraphrase the unwavering series - gives a response, a meaning and a conclusion to the restless noise from which the music has sprung."
(translation: Hilary Staples)