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Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Symphony No. 2 'A London Symphony'

By the 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 A Sea Symphony, which took three years and a school-term with Ravel to complete (1909) . . . 

Two years 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. 

VW's subtitle, A 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, et 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. 

And, why 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. 

1. 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]. 

2. 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. 

3. Scherzo - Nocturne: Allegro vivace I'd bet that VW came across Debussy's Fêtes 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. 

4. 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. 

As an 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 altogether.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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