Ralph Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony

performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult

third and fourth movements here

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October, 1872 at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire to Rev. Arthur Vaughan Williams, of English and Welsh ancestry, with backgrounds in law and the church. The Reverend’s wife Margaret, née Wedgwood was a niece of Charles Darwin. The Reverend passed away when young Ralph was not quite three years old, so the family moved to Surrey to live with mom’s family. At the age of five, young Ralph (pronounced “Raif”, mind you) got piano lessons from his aunt, but preferred the violin, which he began learning the following year.

He found himself at Charterhouse School in 1887, where his musical interests were encouraged. In 1888, performance was arranged of a G major piano trio by the composer, with RVW as violinist, but that piece is now lost. It seems that as his musical interests and strengths increased, his interest in (or even tolerance for, maybe) religion decreased, but he continued to attend church so as not to stir that English pot too much. His biographer Michael Kennedy referred to him as “that extremely English product the natural nonconformist with a conservative regard for the best tradition.” Could the same be said of his music?

In 1890, he began attending the Royal College of Music. Apparently his family somewhat doubted his skill as a composer and had preferred he go on to Cambridge for further studies, but (rarely enough, if you read many of these composers’ biographies), they didn’t interfere, allowing him to pursue music. He did, however, spend three years at Trinity College, studying music and history.

At RCM he studied first under Hubert Parry, and continued to study with him privately even while attending Trinity. After his return to RCM, he studied under Charles Villiers Stanford, and made (lifelong) friends with Gustav Holst. After Vaughan Williams’ marriage, he and the Missus took a honeymoon to Berlin that apparently lasted a few months, and there the composer studied for a time under Max Bruch. Later, and I know I’m skipping all kinds of details, he tried studying with Elgar. No dice. What about Vincent D’Indy? Also no go. Ultimately, Ralph Vaughan Williams, it may surprise you to learn, studied under Maurice Ravel, three years RVW’s junior! According to Byron Adams in “Vaughan Williams’s musical apprenticeship”, Ravel said that RVW is “my only pupil who does not write my music.” It also seems that Ravel didn’t take on many students to begin with, and it was a few years after the composer’s time with Ravel that A London Symphony, the composer’s second work in the form, appeared.

The symphony was first performed in 1914, but then lost (apparently as a result of World War I, in the post?), and thankfully “reconstructed and later modified by Vaughan Williams,” says Wikipedia. The work is in four movements and lasts around 45 minutes. The work is dedicated to the composer’s friend and fellow composer George Butterworth, who was killed during the first World War. It was Butterworth who had first suggested that RVW write a symphony (“a purely orchestral symphony”) says Wiki, quoting Stephen Lloyd’s Ralph Vaughan Williams in Perspective:

We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’. I answered… that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to… I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for… a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form… From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished, and it was then that I realised that he possessed in common with very few composers a wonderful power of criticism of other men’s work and insight into their ideas and motives. I can never feel too grateful to him for all he did for me over this work and his help did not stop short at criticism.

So for you dear readers who love a piece with a subtitle instead of a number, and a programmatic nature, I’m sorry, but this piece really only has the former. In fact, RVW said (or rather wrote in a program note somewhere) that “that Symphony by a Londoner might be a better title,” says Wiki, citing liner notes written by William Mann for an EMI release.

The quiet opening of the symphony may lull you into believing that there is some programmatic storyline behind the work, fog clearing off the Thames to reveal the city, perhaps its ancient existence in the past, or through the ages, a single unmoving landscape with millennia worth of change and reconstruction and human history unfolding above (and below) ground. It’s easy to think of something like that as an opening, with the quiet, serene opening. One thing you’ll hear at least twice in the work, that you may not have known actually has a name, is the Westminster Quarters, played by the harp in both instances. Much information can be found in the Structure section of the Wiki article for this piece, but put simply, the first theme of the work is, at least relative to the opening, a violent outburst, “much of it triple forte”, almost ominous, a sense of grinding chromaticism, again, at least in contrast with the serene quietude of a still London morning. These are the players at work in the first movement, and is it ever a good ride!

The second movement is contrastingly expressive, somber, heartfelt, broader and full of tender lyricism, but it itself reaches its more poignant climaxes. I find that this, too, suggests to the listener some kind of theme or storyline, maybe not necessarily tragedy, but something. Max Harrison, in liner notes to a Chandos release, says that Vaughan Williams stated that this movement “is intended to evoke “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon”, as referenced by Wiki. Whatever that means. In fact, this piece is listed under the ‘In Culture’ section of Bloomsbury Square’s Wikipedia page.

Regardless, what you’ll find yourself thinking, maybe, if you’re anything like me, is that the irresistible power of this work is similar to Parry’s third from earlier in the week. While Parry’s symphony had charm in spades, this piece rather has a sense of urgency, the musical version of a page turner. It’s not that every moment is action packed and full of pretty melodies, no, but there’s a sense, a desire, to continue listening to what RVW is building here, and that’s maintained through the second movement.

The third movement is the scherzo, with (nocturne) in parentheses, an interesting combination of musical terms. The opening buzz from the strings makes us hold our breath for an outburst of the kind we heard in the first movement, but no. It’s light, limber, brimming with liveliness, like fluttering hummingbird wings over English gardens of beautiful flowers. The composer gives a description, also from Harrison’s liner notes linked above:

If the listener will imagine himself standing on Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of The Strand, with its great hotels on one side and the “New Cut” on the other, with its crowded streets and flaring lights, it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement.

So sometimes giving too much context in program notes can be bad, because although I’ve spent a bit of time in London on a number of occasions, I can’t relate to that description. There are actually two scherzo themes here, one marked fugato, the second “straightforward and lively”, but nothing of the bombast or violence you might hear from a Romantic-era symphony with continental origins. The movement ends quietly.

The finale, then. How do we go about wrapping up what has been a delightful, satisfying piece, both in individual movements and in the overall work? Well, we open with a kind of funereal march sound, not so much mournful as perhaps pensive. But it’s not all solemnity and deep thought. There’s a lighter contrasting allegro, and after the march returns, the real close of this movement is revealed: the main ‘violent’ theme of the first movement returns (‘violent’ being my label; subjective), followed by the Westminster Quarters again, bringing a very full-circle kind of unity to the work.

There is a quiet close to the symphony, much as it begun, an epilogue “inspired by the last chapter of H. G. Wells’s novel Tono-Bungay“, and Wiki gives the following quote from the book:

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.

So one question here is what inspired what. If the symphony is inspired by the book, then the book’s “London Symphony” can’t be referring to RVW’s work. Perhaps it’s a reference to the London Symphony as a cumulative collection of all things that happen on that ground, in that space, a pivotal point in history for so many centuries. I like that idea, but I haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure.

In any case, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s second symphony, A London Symphony, requires no familiarity with London as a prerequisite, no reading of H. G. Wells’s book, nothing but a willing ear, even if only barely so, as the piece plays out as a compelling, even gripping listen, a wonderful success of a symphony, if you ask me.

And really, like Parry’s English symphony, how could it not be included in a series like this, with that title? So there it is, a really wonderful inclusion and another superb addition to our English Symphony Series.

Things will get more intense as we make our way toward the middle of the 20th century, so do please stay tuned. After today’s work, one at the weekend, and another one or two next week, we may be done with the ‘typical’ English composers that people think of when they try to name English composers, but don’t let that deter you. The stuff you might not have heard yet is also wonderful. See you then.

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One thought on “Ralph Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony

  1. The program notes to the London Symphony was not written by RVW. The original version is not lost, it was recorded by Hickox and is available on YT. Actually, I prefer the original version, especially the last movement makes more sense.

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