Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony

The Second Book of the Gramophone Record (pub 1925)
by Percy A Scholes

First Movement of A London Symphony                                       R. Vaughan Williams

THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Conducted by Sir Dan Godfrey)

For a certain performance in 1920 the composer wrote a programme note, stating: ‘The life of London (including possibly its various sights and sounds) has suggested to the composer an attempt at musical expression, but it would be no help to the hearer to describe these in words’.
Put in another way, Vaughan Williams has recorded in music his impressions and emotions, and these have ‘possibly’ (curious word) had their genesis in certain actual London experiences of which he prefers not to give us the details. He wants his piece, he says, to be ‘self -impressive’ and to ‘stand or fall as “absolute” music’.
Therein probably he was wise. Had the symphony been floated off on the public mind rather as ‘programme’ than as ‘music’, many hearers might have been misguided enough to regard it as a puzzle-picture, as some people, with more justification, do a Strauss ‘Poem’, and have fixed their mind on discovering an explanation rather than on enjoying the musical beauty and receiving an emotional impression. Indeed, in America something of the sort has been done. Here is a suggested ‘programme’ recorded by the well-known critic, H. T. Finck, in the New York Evening Post.

Mr. Williams presents the great metropolis musically in a great variety of aspects. At first old Father Thames flows calmly and we hear Big Ben (the Westminster chimes); then we enter the Strand’s turmoil, and thence turn in the second movement to the gloom of Bloomsbury in the dusk. The Scherzo takes us to the Temple Embankment, between the Houses of Parliament and Waterloo Bridge, the slums, which on a Saturday night resemble a fair, where coster-girls dance their beloved ” Double-Shuffle Jig.” The final picture presents the London of the unemployed and the unfortunate, and finally we return to the silence of the river, interrupted by Big Ben.’

Mr. Finck seems to have confused the clock chimes at Westminster with the deep bell that strikes the hour, and to have moved our riverside slums to the wrong bank. Otherwise his programme seems to fit the musical facts pretty neatly, and so much suggestion as he gives can surely do none of us any harm, provided that we remember that, to quote Beethoven on his ‘Pastoral Symphony’, such a ‘piece’ is ‘Mehr Empfindung als Malerei’ (more expression of emotions than painting). These words are, indeed, a good deal truer of the London than of either the Beethoven Pastoral or the Vaughan Williams Pastoral.
The instruments used in the First Movement are as follows:






The presence of both the noble Trumpets and their baser pier-band substitutes is to be observed; it offers the opportunity for some very characteristic effects.


First Side.
It opens with a slow Introduction, The ‘CELLOS and DOUBLE BASSES (muted) begin:

This snatch of tune is to be remembered as the germ of a theme of considerable importance throughout the Movement. As soon as it has been heard the VIOLAS and CLARINET (with Muted Horns and muted Violins holding a Chord) respond, with a little undulating motif.
(Note for score-readers: 15 bars are here omitted.)
Then the HORNS, BASSOONS, ‘CELLOS and DOUBLE BASSES take up the opening phrase, extending it, so that it rises, not as before, one octave, but two. Against this the VIOLINS are heard playing an equally quiet descending theme.
The passage continues, all very hushed, and into it now creeps the Westminster chime (HARP harmonics, doubled by a CLARINET).
A crescendo then begins, the WOOD WIND taking that tiny undulating of the opening, and doubling, trebling and quadrupling it in speed and in force, whilst, underneath, various BRASS instruments successively blare out the first motif the rising theme of the very opening.
This culminates, there is a dead stop of a moment’s duration, and then, the Introduction thus closed, almost FULL ORCHESTRA plunges us into the Movement proper.

immediately repeated two octaves lower.
The Movement abounds in themes, almost always short ones. Others that appear almost at once are:


(Note for score-readers: Immediately after this 19 bars are omitted.)

Of this last a good deal of use is at once made, a flowing passage of some length, chiefly for Strings, Wood and Horns, being the result.
Soon a loud rising call of heavy chords by all Wind, alternated with a gay little staccato String tune, leads in this lively theme, in WOOD WIND, with Harp and Horn chords, accompanying (there ought to be also a Triangle, but I cannot hear it):

This tune is at once repeated by CORNETS, CLARINET and pizzicato STRINGS. We are now fairly launched into a vulgarly happy passage which occupies us to the turn of the Record. So far all that we have heard has constituted the ‘Exposition’ of the Movement, i.e., the portion of it which makes known to us its musical subject matter.

Second Side.
What follows is technically of the nature of Development of the musical themes we have heard.
It opens very strenuously and even tragically, with a treatment of the opening theme of the Movement (i.e., of the Movement proper).
This softens in feeling, and merges into a most lovely, flowing, gentle treatment of a sinuous tune which has flowered out of the seed of the opening rising motif of the Introduction.
In the middle of this occurs a beautiful interpolation – Two SOLO ‘CELLOS (quite alone) have a rising passage which is then taken and carried still higher by Two SOLO VIOLINS, which as they reach the summit of these passages somehow touch the button which releases a flood of HARP tone. STRINGS then (two instruments only to each part and without Double Basses) play a slow chordal cadence, the HARPS are again released – and so forth.
A good deal of this section is omitted, and so is the opening of the Recapitulation section which follows. The very beautiful and stirring Coda which closes the Movement is, however, given almost in full.
In my present frame of mind I am inclined to suggest that there is not to be had from any one of the fifty records mentioned in this book a more genuinely poetical passage than that which opens about half an inch from the circumference of the Second Side of this Record, i.e., the whole of the gentler portion of the ‘Development’ of the Movement. This is the expression of peace – and it is lovely stuff.
This Record is a most valuable possession, despite its cuts. These, however, are important, and for the benefit of any reader who wishes to follow the music with the score, I give them here:

Page 1 bar 3 to page 5 bar 4
”   11  2       ”   14    5
”   38  6       ”   43    1
”   46  2       ”   47    5
”   48 bars 3 to 6
”   50 bar 6 to page 56 bar 6
”   62   ”  4      ”     63   ”  1
”   64 Bars 2 and 4 omitted
”   68 Bar 3 to page 70 bar 4

The Scherzo of the Symphony (good also, but inferior to the Movement just described) is also recorded, and I trust that the remaining two movements will soon be added, in which case a later edition of this book may give me an opportunity of describing this work as a whole.
Meantime I cannot pass from this subject without adverting to the extremely misleading labels, catalogue references, and references in another publication of the Recording Company. Both labels and catalogues speak of these Records as giving ‘A London Symphony’, in four Parts, by which the unsuspecting are inevitably led to believe that by buying these Records they will have the work complete in its four Movements. A lengthy description of the Records in a publication of the Company affirms that ‘this fine work, “A London Symphony” by R. Vaughan Williams, becomes available in Record form’. I have no doubt that it is by inadvertence that these misleading announcements have been made, and shall be delighted to find myself in a position to withdraw my strictures in any later edition of this book. I gladly note that the excellent Musician and Music Lover’s Guide to Columbia Records, by Mr. R. Sterndale Bennett, correctly describes the Records as ‘Two Movements of the work’. It would add greatly to the value of this useful compilation, and of the similar compilations of other companies, if some indication were given in every case where a work listed is not complete. And, of course, the sooner the practice of issuing ‘cut’ versions is entirely dropped the better. Then we shall know where we are, which in buying Records at present, we certainly do not!

Large Columbia Light Blue Record. L. 1507. 7s. 6d. Printed Music. Orchestral Score, published by Stainer 8c Bell, full-sized copy, 50s. ; miniature copy, 10s. 6d.

Leave a Reply