Vaughan Williams, the fiftieth anniversary of whose death is being marked this year, and his music, life and personality widely celebrated, did not number his symphonies, but the London Symphony was his second, premièred in March 1914. The only copy of the score was sent to a publisher in Germany just as World War I broke out, and the Symphony had to be reconstructed from the orchestral parts.
There has been much debate over the years about the extent to which Vaughan Williams’ music is ‘programmatic’ – that is, does it have a definite ‘meaning’ or tell a story, or is it pure music? The London Symphony is an illuminating case in point.
For the early performances Vaughan Williams was happy for the movements to bear titles – hints rather than descriptions – like ‘Dawn’, ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon’, and “Nocturne: Westminster Embankment”. However, he took fright when in 1920 the conductor Albert Coates let his imagination run riot in his programme notes, for example suggesting one passage as representing ‘a fiddler tuning up under a gas-light’, and the finale ‘depicting a hunger-march’! This was getting silly, and distracting attention from the music itself, and Vaughan Williams retreated into asking that the work be regarded rather as ‘a symphony by a Londoner’. No great artists like their work to be reduced to a mere ‘painting-by-numbers’ exercise, and will always want to transform their material, however mundane, into something of vastly greater significance and universality. Certainly you can clearly hear in this symphony such actual London sounds as the chimes of Big Ben, the cry of a lavender-seller, and the wheezy accordion of a street-musician, but the way in which they are woven into the whole musical tapestry takes them far beyond mere descriptive details, just as we can appreciate Debussy’s La Mer as music without knowing it is “about” the sea.
Having now argued that ‘explaining’ music in words can only diminish it, I don’t now propose to fall into that trap by trying to do so! We hope you will find in listening, as we have in playing it, that the music speaks for itself. But there is one exception, the quiet Epilogue to the Finale, whose inspiration the composer himself made clear – the end of H.G. Wells’ novel Tono-Bungay, where the passing of the old order is prophesied. The Epilogue begins with a rippling figure which tells us that the Thames is its subject. Wells describes London as seen from a destroyer sailing down the river towards the sea: ‘To run down the Thames so is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end. The river passes – London passes, England passes. . .’.
Central to the Symphony’s success is the wonderful limpid scoring, which Vaughan Williams felt in later life that he had never bettered. He had taken lessons in orchestration in 1908 from Maurice Ravel to acquire, as he put it, ‘a little French polish’, and the results were quickly apparent. In this Symphony there are atmospheric evocations of London which we can only call ‘impressionistic’, showing how he had developed complete assurance in deploying his orchestral technique.
When we add to this his very personal idiom developed from the twin bases of English folksong and Tudor church music, we have what is probably Vaughan Williams’ first completely mature work. As his friend Holst wrote, ‘You have really done it this time. Not only have you reached the heights, but you have taken your audience with you.’ We modestly hope for something similar this evening. . .