Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Symphony No. 2 'A London
early 1900s, Vaughan Williams had only dabbled in composition, until George
Butterworth opened the flood gates releasing VW's remarkable talent. VW
recalled, “. . . he said in his characteristically abrupt way, ‘You know,
you ought to write a symphony.’ From that moment the idea of a symphony
- a thing which I had always declared I would never attempt - dominated
my mind.” Not one to do things by halves, he started on the hugely ambitious
Sea Symphony, which took three years and a school-term with Ravel to
complete (1909) . . .
later, having polished off The Wasps, the Five Mystical Songs
and the Tallis Fantasia, he started his Second Symphony,
which also occupied him for about three years, although this time he was
also advancing on other fronts. Geoffrey Toye conducted the Second Symphony's
première on 27 March 1914. Subsequently sending the score to Fritz
Busch at Aachen proved disastrous, because the score was lost in the outbreak
of war. While, with Butterworth's help, reconstructing it from the orchestral
parts, VW revised it, this version being performed in 1918 under Boult.
VW, still dissatisfied, made another revision, which Albert Coates conducted
in 1920. As has now emerged, enshrined on CD for all to hear, the
original version contains some twenty minutes’ more music. This is an undoubted
and unexpected bonus, but it doesn’t make the customary final revision
any less good.
London Symphony, provoked raging controversy over whether it was a
“true” symphony. VW said he didn't intend a “purely descriptive piece”,
thinking a better title might be “Symphony by a Londoner” (presumably
provoking outrage from his Gloustershire birthplace). He added that “If
listeners recognise suggestions of such things as the Westminster Chimes
or the Lavender Cry, they are asked to consider these as accidents, not
as essentials, of the music”. Such things included onomatopoaeic references
to Hansom Cabs (second movement) and piano accordions (third movement).
Yet, if this wasn't his intention, then why advance such an explicit subtitle:
wasn't he just asking for trouble? Maybe not, because the Romantics
had made common practice of titling complicated non-vocal pieces, to help
audiences. The real problem was that people equated “orchestral with title”
to “symphonic poems” and such, but (heaven forbid!) not symphonies
- disregarding many such from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt,
al. It seems there are always those who cannot reconcile symphonic
“serious intent” with the “picturesque amusement” of descriptive music.
VW's Second Symphony is a supremely impressive example of having
it both ways.
not? “Programme music” is only “absolute music” with subtitles. VW's forms
may be slightly idiosyncratic, but are firmly based on inherited classical
models: in particular, the first movement is a sonata, complicated only
by the wealth of jostling, juicy material, and the scherzo a ternary form
which even repeats its main subject, albeit offset by an imaginative conclusion.
The whole work is sandwiched between “Introduction to Westminster Chimes
to A”, and a mirror image “A to Westminster Chimes to Epilogue”, giving
those so inclined a vivid impression of a “day trip”, arriving and departing
via the same route.
Lento - Allegro risoluto Apparently, even back then, London woke up
with a hangover. The enraged first subject [A] erupts out of the half-hour
chimes, a chromatic profusion of short motifs. A second subject [B] emerges,
cantabile (strings), mediating between the negative [A] and a positive
assertion ([C], based on the Introduction's rising figure). [C] generates
great high spirits, eventually usurped by a glowering [A], initiating the
development. [A]'s threatened third charge is pre-empted by [C], which
transmutes into a calm theme (flute). Soon, a solo 'cello sings [B], which
dominates the development section. The recapitulation creeps in (string
tremolandi): [A], mollified, yields directly to [C], with [B] held in reserve
to thrust the coda into a fiery exaltation of the positive [C].
Lento VW “accidentally” described this music, of distinctly chilly,
fog-laden pastoral modality, as “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon”.
A simple and astonishingly beautiful set of variations on three themes,
laid out as ABABC. [A] appears on cor anglais, and [B] is characterised
by tender, pulsing strings under a lonely horn call. [C], introduced by
a solo viola, is that “Lavender” tune, which is extensively and passionately
elaborated, flowing into a wonderful coda nostalgically recalling each
theme in turn.
Scherzo - Nocturne: Allegro vivace I'd bet that VW came across Debussy's
during his Paris visit, so deftly does his first subject's flickering
catch the same mood. A repeat heralds the counter-subject, striding like
a Cockney coalman in wellies, to be swallowed up by the main subject. Then,
piano-accordion imitations announce a street party for the Trio. The main
subject's scurryings fade away: no more repeats, just gas-lit gloaming.
Andante com moto - Maestoso alla marcia - Allegro - Lento - Epilogue
starts with a wracked cry. 'Cellos introduce the first subject, a stately
march treading solemnly to an impressive climax, from where it is succeeded
by a boisterous second subject. The first subject's varied reprise closes
a simple ternary form, but the movement is far from over: a vast, tamtam-capped
climax dissolves into the first movement's [A], setting us on that road
back out of town as the three-quarter chimes, and London sleeps.
impression of London in the early 1900s, VW paints a not altogether cosy
picture: some fearsome passages are all too redolent of the manic, traffic-clogged
London of today. But, as a symphony - well, that's a different story
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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