Spring Symphonies: 41/60: Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony

Vaughan Williams first symphony was launched without reference to it's number in his canon.  So too the second symphony - which was entitled "A London Symphony".  It's a very attractive work which has one flawed movement but if you can overlook that there are sublime moments in it and it does catch the power-house of the British Empire at it's height and closing.

Like much of Vaughan Williams work it surveys a scene from the position of the common man.  This composer was not a social climber but then he didn't need to be given his family background.  But he did as a student and then as one of the country's most prominent composers favour the common man in his music and in his support for music making.

The symphony dates from 1912-13 when it was written and dedicated to George Butterworth the young composer killed subsequently in the Great War.  It was revised later - whilst the 1914 version is praised by some (recorded by Richard Hickox with the support of the Vaughan Williams Society on Chandos) I'm pretty sure that the composer was wright to follow his friends advice (Bax and Holst) to cut out parts.  It's a shame the composer didn't do something about the dreadfully crude sequences in the last movement but we can I think plough through those recognising they were probably more acceptable in their time.  There were revisions in the 1920s and 1930s and the later version of the score is what we hear nowadays and RVW expressly said he didn't want the original played.

It's a symphony that is very popular abroad and has been picked up by many more conductors than most of the rest of the cycle.  The composer paints a number of portraits of the city which he knew very well.  He lived from 1905 -1928 at No 13, Cheney Walk in Chelsea and close to what would then have been a thriving commercial river and to the West End which was a commercial centre.  The street sellers and their cries seem to leap out at one.  Horse drawn transportation and the jangling of harnesses is obvious as are street calls and the lazy effect of night falling on a busy place.

The symphony has had a great deal written about it - not least by Michael Kennedy and Hugh Ottaway's wonderful little BBC Music Guide which was my introduction to the music of Vaughan Williams.  The famous Times music critic William Mann managed to introduce an unfortunate ear worm into the equation.  His claim that the fanfare in the first movement spells out Picc - a - dily - still comes to me whenever I go through the underground station.  He was right though - this call from a tram or bus conductor resonates as much today as it did then.

What I find wonderful about the symphony is that it betrays so many European and English influences on the composer that it shows his development and ear for the music of the time.  In Osmo Vänskä's hands the scherzo becomes a tribute Stravinsky, there are elements arising from the French Polish Vaughan Williams received from his lessons with Maurice Ravel and there are other wonders to admire.

But to love this symphony you have to love the spirit of place which Vaughan Williams finds and has the music embody.  From the flower sellers in the second movement to the chime soft Big Ben he has captured the very things that made London at that time the most fascinating, bustling and characterful capital in Europe. Though it has to be said that Paris and Vienna were probably the continent's hot beds of musical innovation at that time and that the London he describes in 1913 is a different place from London today.  But spirit of place - be it an Unknown Region, an English meadow, a French battlefield or an Antarctic wasteland - was something at which RVW excelled.

The great masterstroke of this symphony for me is that final movement coda - a passage which ends many things including the not particularly successful movement before it.  RVW said the inspiration came from H G Well's novel Tono-Bungay - the eloquence of the words and their wide significance caught by RVW here:-

"The last great movement in the London Symphony in which the true scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up... Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes..."

RVW was if nothing else eager and supportive of social change and he believed music and making music was the bed-rock of a nation.  I suspect even though he had thrived in Edwardian England he was happy to se etch back of it's strictures and inequality.  This coda also brilliantly catches the water, the night and the lights of the city.

I can't remember a time when I didn't love this symphony - it should be an essential part of any English music lovers symphonic collection - not least because it provides an antidote to Elgar :-)

Here's a video performance I've chosen if only because it gives one a chance to se etch wide variety of RVW's orchestration.


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