Monday, May 17, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities: Vaughan Williams' London

How will the future look back on the events we're living through at this very moment in time? Will it earn a phrase so wonderfully memorable as the one Charles Dickens used to open his story set around the French Revolution, a novel he wrote in 1859 – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”?

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony takes its audience on a musical trip – without ever having to leave the Forum, Saturday night at 8pm or Sunday afternoon at 3pm. (Come an hour early and catch Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk.)

Welcome to “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Now, Dickens' novel evokes London and Paris – but this concert offers you musical depictions of Rome (by way of Paris) and London (with a Symphony by a Londoner) plus in between a side-trip to Biedermeier Germany in the 1840s for Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto.

The program begins in Rome with an overture by French composer Hector Berlioz who'd won the prestigious Prix de Rome, spending some time there working on his Symphonie fantastique and finding several inspirations for later works – Harold in Italy, for one, but also a huge opera based on the life of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. It is an interlude from the Cellini opera, describing the Carnival Season in Rome, that has become famous in the concert hall as “The Roman Carnival Overture.”

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Ralph Vaughan Williams may not be a name that well known to many American audiences – his first name should be pronounced “Rafe” and his last name is a double-barreled non-hyphenated name that is also frequently misspelled 'Vaughn' – but Harrisburg has heard two of his works in the past decade – the very familiar “Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” for string orchestra and a less well-known major choral work, the “Dona nobis pacem” combining biblical texts and poetry by Walt Whitman written in 1936 during the very unsettled decade before World War II.

In past seasons, the Lancaster Symphony had also performed his first symphony, an all-choral setting of Walt Whitman's poetry and one of Vaughan Williams' more performed large scale works, “A Sea Symphony.” Then, more recently, the Reading Symphony played his 6th Symphony, an intense score that many saw as commentary on the aftermath of World War II or a much-feared future nuclear war.

The Tallis Fantasia and the rapturous “A Lark Ascending” (not to mention a Christmas chestnut like his Fantasia on Greensleeves) are often tops on lists of radio listener favorites, both here and in England.

This weekend, Stuart Malina has chosen to end the current season with Vaughan Williams' 2nd Symphony which is officially “A London Symphony,” not “THE London Symphony” perhaps in part to distinguish it from Haydn's last symphonic work, one of a set of twelve written for London in the 1790s – but also in part because Vaughan Williams thought of it more as “A Symphony by a Londoner.” Rather than being about London, it's more like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony – “impressions of a Londoner upon walking around the city."

Vaughan Williams (see photograph, left, taken in 1920) was not a Londoner by birth. He was born in the Cotswald village of Down Ampney and grew up in Surrey, south of London – Dorking, primarily, and the family home at Leith Hill. He joked he had been born “with a very small silver spoon in my mouth,” a member of a privileged upper-class family where Charles Darwin was a great-uncle and his mother was descended from the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood. His first wife, Adeline Fisher, was a cousin of Virginia Woolf.

He moved to London after they got married in 1896, living primarily in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, after 1905. Unfortunately, his wife's illness – she suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis – eventually required them to move back to Dorking, but that was years after he composed his symphonic tribute to the city he considered a vital part of his life. After his wife died in 1951, he remarried and quickly moved back to London.

Michael Kennedy, author of one of the better biographies of the composer's life and works – wrote that “[s]ome tentative attempts at a symphonic poem about London were resurrected and 'thrown' into symphony form.” It was his friend and fellow composer George Butterworth who'd suggested he turn these sketches into an all-orchestral symphony following his success with a choral one.

Vaughan Williams had just received his 'big break' with two pieces composed in 1910, works we don't think of being “surprising” or “original” today.

The justly famous Tallis Fantasia was an early example of modern composers basing their 'new music' on something very old – in this case, an English composer from the late 16th Century: when French and Italian composers would make this “grave-robbing school” all the rage after World War I, they would go back to the early 1700s for their material.

The “Sea” Symphony is a choral symphony but unlike most choral symphonies who, following Beethoven's example, reserve the choir for the last movement, Vaughan Williams uses it throughout. People may argue it's more a four-movement cantata than an actual symphony, but then Gustav Mahler wrote his 8th Symphony in 1906, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” though several hundred would be more accurate. But it wasn't premiered until September 12th, 1910, exactly one month before Vaughan Williams' “Sea Symphony” was first heard.

These two works made Vaughan Williams “famous” or at least gave him his first recognition. The symphony was premiered on his 38th birthday. Keep in mind his very first published work was a song, “Linden Lea,” which didn't see its way into print until he was 30, making him something of a late-bloomer when you compare him to the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn. Considering Schubert died at 31 and Mozart at 35, had Vaughan Williams had such a short life, we wouldn't know anything about him.

Fortunately, he was still composing when he died at the age of 86, leaving a cello concerto and a new opera incomplete on his desk just as he was preparing for the recording of his 9th Symphony. In fact, he composed his last four symphonies after one he completed when he was 70: most people considered the radiant 5th Symphony, premiered in the midst of the London Blitz, his swan-song.

His “London Symphony” is usually listed as having been composed in 1913, though he had already played through the first two movements for a friend the year before, when he'd turned 40. Though Vaughan Williams revised the symphony periodically – even in the early 1950s when Barbirolli was recording all six of the symphonies he'd composed so far and the composer was turning 80 – he told the conductor “the London Symphony is past mending – though indeed with all its faults I love it still – indeed it is my favourite of my family of six.” (Three more were written in the last six years of his life.) It was the 1920 revision where Vaughan Williams dedicated it to the memory of George Butterworth who died in a battle on the Somme in 1916 at the age of 31.

Like other travelogue symphonies, there seems to be an elaborate “program” behind the music – musical snapshots of the location or themes inspired by scenery or a mood or perhaps a snatch of a song overheard there.

Perhaps the most famous early example of this would be Beethoven's Pastoral, inspired by visits to the countryside outside Vienna, many of which, in the years of urban development since 1806, are now within the city limits. But even Haydn paid tribute to London in the last of his “London Symphonies,” basing a theme on a street peddler's cry which audiences in 1795 London would have been likely to recognize (call it a pop culture reference, if you want).

Mendelssohn wrote symphonies following visits to Scotland and Italy, incorporating actual melodies (or at least “actual-like”) in the course of the works. Even Berlioz, in his symphony-concerto-symphonic poem, “Harold in Italy,” borrowed a song sung by an Abruzzi mountaineer to his sweetheart for his third movement, also incorporating the sound of the pifferari, the shepherds who played wind instruments in a style that became a special Italian Christmas tradition in all those Christmas-related works written by 18th Century Italian composers.

If a 21st American listeners hears nothing more than Big Ben's Westminster Chimes near the opening and closing moments of the symphony, that is enough to evoke an aural image of London. But in the second movement, he quotes the song of another street vendor, this one less riotous than Haydn's and one more attuned to a reader of Dickens' novels. The viola solo near the middle was purportedly sung by a seller of lavender, and its inclusion should be nothing surprising for a composer who'd already spent many a day tramping around the country-side listening to and jotting down folk songs sung by the countryfolk which may bring to mind the importance Bela Bartok placed on the role of folk song. Vaughan Williams was already doing this in 1904 when Bartok heard his first truly authentic Hungarian folk-song which sparked his life-long interest in the folk cultures of Eastern Europe.

“A London Symphony” – incidentally, the composer did not refer to it as his Symphony No. 2 – is in the four basic movements – a slow introduction preceding a rousing main theme and contrasting second theme; a slow movement; a scherzo; a finale that, at the end, returns to the material first heard in the introduction.

For a 1920 performance, Vaughan Williams allowed the conductor Albert Coates to supply descriptions for the program notes, though the composer's own comments are sufficient to give an idea behind the music's inspirations. Though many of his later symphonies – most notably the 6th – would seem to have possible programs, the composer steadfastly refused to make any comments on the matter then.

1st Movement: Lento – Allegro risoluto The symphony opens quietly as if at night, London perceived through the fog along the Thames (not far from Vaughan Williams' home at the time). The Westminster Chimes are heard, played on the harp. Then, after a short pause, the main section begins, vigorous and often quite loud before leading to a second theme, dominated by the wind and brass, that composer said evoked “Hampstead Heath on an August bank holiday" (a famous park dating back to the 10th Century, the Heath was a popular destination for Londoners taking in the fresh air, comparable, perhaps, to New Yorkers and Central Park).

2nd Movement: Lento Vaughan Williams described this as an evocation of one of London's famous garden parks, “Bloomsbury Square [see above] on a November afternoon." Quiet themes played by the English horn and a solo viola (with its lavender-seller's song) contrast with an impassioned climax before the movement gradually returns to its original quiet opening mood.

3rd Movement: Scherzo (Nocturne) As Vaughan Williams wrote, "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."

4th Movement Finale  – Andante con moto  – Maestoso alla marcia  – Allegro  – Lento  – Epilogue The last movement opens with a grim march which Vaughan Williams described as 'The March of the Down-and-Outers.” This is contrasted with a lighter fast section after which the march returns. Then the main theme from the first movement returns us to the embankment along the Thames as the Westminster Chimes strike once again. The symphony concludes with a quiet Epilogue, which the composer said was inspired by the last chapter of H. G. Wells' novel Tono-Bungay:

"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, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes...."

Here is a student orchestra (listed in the video feed only as GMEA All State, so I'm assuming Georgia?) conducted by Randall Swiggum of the last movement of Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony.”
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You can read my personal reminiscences about Vaughan Williams and his "A London Symphony" here.

- Dick Strawser

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