Friday, 7 January 2011

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony – third movement

Ever since I began to listen to classical music I have had a strong dislike of excerpting movements of symphonies. Most people suggest that this is because I am a musical snob! However, I strongly believe that it is best to try to hear the entire work, as that is how the composer intended it to be heard.
That said, I was delighted to hear part of Ralph Vaughan Williams London Symphony on Classic FM on New Year’s Day –the Scherzo-Nocturne of the Second Symphony commonly known as the ‘London’. The performance was by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
It is not my intention to describe this work in any detail – this had been done many times including in music criticism by A.E.F Dickinson, Hugh Ottoway and Elliot Schwartz. However, I have long felt that this ‘scherzo’ gives a wonderfully varied mood picture of ‘London by Night’ and that of all the composer’s symphonic movements may well be able to stand alone.
Vaughan Williams insisted that this symphony was not ‘programme music’ and that the “music is intended to be self-impressive and must stand or fall as absolute music”. However, there are so many musically descriptive passages evoking the sights and sounds of London that a ‘programme’ is usually associated with the work:-
The composer has written, "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."
Gilbert Burnett, writing in the sleeve notes for the Decca Eclipse (ECS616) suggests that this movement ‘evokes the feeling of a city at night in a way not excelled by any other composer.’ He suggests that themes are ‘tossed about’ in the ‘hurly-burly’ of this music, until a ‘heavy footed fugato asserts itself.’ The listener will hear echoes of jigs and dances and even a musical representation of a mouth organ or accordion. However, ‘a sinister mood once more pervades the music and one is suddenly reminded of the loneliness and tragedy to be found in any city at night.’
The London Symphony was composed between 1912 and 1913 and was first performed in 1914. However it was subsequently revised by the composer in 1919-20 and finally in 1941 when the score was being prepared for a recording session.
The Scherzo-Nocturne from the London Symphony can be heard on YouTube

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