After a series of long-awaited successes, Vaughan Williams (VW) creates the atmospheric four-movement symphony that celebrates his adopted city. Outwardly a four-movement orchestral portrait of the composer’s much-loved adopted city (complete with ‘Big Ben’ chimes), this idea broadens out to encompass a tragic vision culminating in the Finale’s Epilogue, which then dissolves into nothingness.
Just six weeks before presenting the Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams had conducted another major premiere. This was a work that was not only English to the marrow, but also, at a single stroke, renewed and redefined what ‘English music’ itself meant.
The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for strings was first heard at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral. Its roots can be traced back to VW’s editing of The English Hymnal from 1904 onwards –an experience through which he rediscovered the riches of English music in the Tudor and Elizabethan eras.
As with folksong, he again sensed that the melodic shape and colouring – pre-classically modal, rather than classically tonal – of Tallis’s wonderful tune were qualities that might germinate a much larger form. That this was achieved so remarkably owed much to an inspired reinterpretation of the visual aspect of cathedral architecture in musical terms. The Tallis Fantasia is scored for a string quartet and two string orchestras, the second one smaller and more distant, so that the musical perspectives shift through and across these spatially deployed forces.
Nothing succeeds like success – especially when you’ve had to wait for it. The next year’s Three Choirs Festival, in Worcester, featured another major Vaughan Williams premiere, the Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus and orchestra. He was also working on another symphony.
VW was happy in the company of other composers, particularly Gustav Holst, and he very much enjoyed the Yorkshire-born forthrightness of George Butterworth – the gifted creator of the Housman-inspired A Shropshire Lad for orchestra. ‘George… had been sitting with us one evening, smoking and playing,’ he later wrote. ‘And… as he was getting up to go, he said in his characteristically abrupt way, “You know, you ought to write a symphony.” …I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished.’
What Butterworth had evidently meant was a purely orchestral symphony. What, in fact, emerged in A London Symphony was a four-movement work, which, outwardly at least, was an affectionate, atmospheric, teemingly detailed orchestral portrayal of its composer’s adopted city.
It is all of those things, and something more – something unmistakable and difficult to pin down, as the finale’s procession-like progress grows in power while darkening in tone, and vast and desolate spaces open out around the music.
In the symphony’s Epilogue, it is not just a musical work, but a whole world that seems to be passing away as we listen. We are left with an uncanny sense of a prescient memorial to the imminent destruction of a whole generation – including George Butterworth, killed in action in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
CHAN CHSA5001 (currently unavailable)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
WCJ 2564 69848-3 (6 discs)