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About this Piece

Composed: 1920
Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, sleigh bells, side drum, tam tam, triangle), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 16, 1925, Sir Henry Wood conducting

In an essay written during the 1930s, Vaughan Williams declared: “Every composer cannot expect to have a world-wide message, but he may reasonably expect to have a message for his own people, and many young composers make the mistake of imagining that they can be universal without first having been local. Is it not reasonable to suppose that those who share our life, our history, our customs, our climate, even our food, should have some secret to impart to us which a foreign composer... is not able to give us? This is the secret of the national composer... But is he prepared with his secret?... What a composer has to do is find out the real message he has to convey to the community and say it directly and without equivocation... If the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls.”

Thus, VW initially “cobbled” his style, as he modestly put it, “out of English folk song, the 16th-century Tudor composers [he prominently cites William Byrd] and... Henry Purcell.”

The London Symphony was begun as early as 1908. Then, in 1912, the 40-year-old composer, to amuse his friends on a visit to Cambridge, played on “a battered upright piano” the sketch for the first two movements.

In his 1912 essay “Who wants the English Composer?” he observed that the artist “should take the forms of musical expression all around him and purify and raise them to the level of great art.” A London Symphony, then, is about what was around him – the sights, sounds, and moods of the great metropolis. It was completed in 1914 and premiered in that year in the Queen’s Hall London under Geoffrey Toye, best known for his association with the D’Oyly Carte Opera and its Gilbert and Sullivan presentations. The orchestral manuscript was subsequently sent by Vaughan Williams to conductor Fritz Busch in Germany for his consideration and became, literally, an early casualty of the First World War, in which it was destroyed. The orchestral score was then reconstructed from the instrumental parts and published in 1920.

The opening suggests a misty daybreak over the city, “all that mighty heart lying still,” leading, again in the composer’s words, to a “memory of Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon.” The ensuing Allegro risoluto section is “alive with the noise and scurry of street traffic – hansom cabs and most likely the occasional motor – and the distant chiming [harp and clarinet] of Big Ben.” And doesn’t the movement end with a burst of sunlight? Perhaps over the houses of Parliament; something very imposing, at any rate.

The slow movement of the original, lost version was, in the words of Vaughan Williams’ friend and fellow composer George Butterworth, who was to die in the trenches of France in 1916, “an idyll of grey skies and secluded byways — an aspect of London quite as familiar as any other: the feeling of the music is remote, mystical.” Such feelings are equally palpable in the 1920 score.

Vaughan Williams himself wrote of the scherzo-nocturne third movement: “If the hearer will imagine standing on the Westminster Embankment at night, the distant sounds of the Strand with its hotels on one side and the ‘New Cut’ [then, a street chiefly inhabited by plumbing-fixtures dealers and furniture brokers] on the other, it may serve as a mood in which to listen.” The sound of the buskers’ harmonica and accordion (imitated by muted horn and strings) in the E-major middle section is noteworthy.

The magnificently rich finale opens with an impassioned cry from the full orchestra that winds down, dramatically, to a cello solo which introduces an Elgar-like march tune (all the cellos). A London Symphony is crowned by the elegiac closing pages (Big Ben again an audible presence), whose “explanation,” the composer suggested to his biographer, Michael Kennedy, was to be found in a passage from the H.G. Wells 1909 novel Tono-Bungay, in which the narrator, sailing down the Thames, “seems to be passing all England in review.” The splendidly evocative Wells passage further reads:

“To run down the Thames is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England …There come first the stretches of mean homes... the dingy industrialism of the South Side and on the North Bank the polite long front of nice houses, artistic, literary, administrative people’s residences, that stretches from Cheyne Walk nearly to Westminster... We tear into the great spaces of the future and the turbines fall to talking in unfamiliar tongues. Out to the open sea we go, to windy freedom and trackless ways. Light after light goes down. England and the kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon... The river passes – London passes – England passes.”