Monday, May 17, 2010

Vaughan Williams' London Symphony: A Personal Recollection

This is Part 2 of an "up-close & personal" post about Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 2, "A London Symphony" that Stuart Malina will conduct with the Harrisburg Symphony at this weekend's concerts, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. You can read my earlier post about the symphony here.

This is a more personal recollection about the piece.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

We all have favorite composers or pieces of music that have been important to us when we were growing up. Sometimes, our attitudes to them change as we develop and redefine ourselves with age and the events of a lifetime that occur around us.

I was still in high school when I bought my first Vaughan Williams recording, sight unseen or perhaps more accurately “sound unheard.” The description of the 5th Symphony's opening on the back of the album cover was enough to talk me into spending allowance money on a composer I'd never heard before (except for an early song I didn't like). With some trepidation, I put the record on but quickly fell in love with it. In short order, I purchased several other Vaughan Williams recordings and borrowed biographies from the library – including the one by his widow, Ursula Wood Vaughan Williams.

I liked him even before I found out he was a cat person - in fact, even before I found out I was a cat person, myself!

Since so many of his works were written in his later years - his 5th Symphony was written when he was 70 and most figured it would be his last, yet he wrote four more and was getting ready for a recording session of his 9th when he died in his sleep at the age of 86 - we most often see him pictured as a rumpled old man in a rumpled old sweater or three-piece suit. The top photo was taken closer to the time he composed "A London Symphony."

Here is a wonderful photograph of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his second wife, the poet Ursula Woods Vaughan Williams (see left).

(You can read my post on the 50th Anniversary of Vaughan Williams' death here.)

His “London Symphony” became part of my growing collection not long after that first recording. I have only heard it live once, when a guest conductor whose name I can't remember, a very old man from England who was a friend of the composer's and had a long history of conducting his music (but not Sir Adrian Boult), came to town to conduct the Rochester Philharmonic while I was a grad student as Eastman.

Judging from what we composition students smuggly thought was “cool” by that stage of our lives and musical awarenesses, I was wondering how I would react to hearing this again, even if it were only five years after I'd first bought the recording.

It was during the slow movement when the “big tune” comes swelling up for the climax about seven minutes in that I realized I had a tear streaming down my cheek.

There was always something about this passage – especially the end of the phrase – that grabbed me emotionally. Perhaps it's my English roots,courtesy of my grandmother and her family from England if not exactly from London, that reacted to this music like they rarely react to any other music I've heard. But there I was, tearing up at this beautiful, simple tune.

Then I glanced over at a friend sitting next to me, a composer who had an even keener interest in avant-garde music than I (though he was also a fan of James Joyce's Ulysses) and who was often loudly derisive as students can sometimes be toward old-fashioned, "out-moded" composers. And I noticed he was quietly brushing aside a tear on his cheek...

I don't know what it about that moment that had this effect on me. It doesn't happen with every beautiful tune and it's not just tonal music that is capable of getting me like that (the ending of Berg's “Lulu” is just as effecting to me as the ending of Puccini's “La Boheme”). I could describe the passage in technical terms but that only describes what he's doing, not why it has this emotional impact on me.

The theme comes in in B-flat (I think: I don't have a score handy to check) but it's a modal tune like many English folk songs, here in B-flat Major but with an A-flat instead of an A-natural in it. This swings back and forth with D-flat Major but with a G-natural instead of G-flat in it. This alteration of a D-natural one time and then a D-flat the next gives it a kind of Major/Minor inflection that usually gives me a harmonic tug-at-the-heart anyway, what trendy people like to call a "frisson." But when he adds an unexpected G-flat to the extension of the phrase in B-flat Major, another “minor inflection,” I just lose it. I have no idea why.

It's been years since I've really listened to the symphony. I know I'd played it on the radio a few times, especially when the new Chandos recording of the original (and longer) version of the symphony'd been released a few years back, but how many times I've listened to it since my days at Eastman in the early-70s would probably number between 9 or 10 times.

And yet, after spending so much time with Berg's “Lulu” these past few weeks (and seeing it live at the Met over the weekend), after years of listening to so much of Elliott Carter's more challenging “high fiber” music which I love and after all my own stuff that I've written in the past almost ten years since I started composing again which would hardly seem compatible with Vaughan Williams' style – often derided as the “cow looking over the fence” school of music – here I was, last night, listening to Sir John Barbirolli's recording of Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony,” and I heard this same spot coming up again and teared up almost instantly - and this, in the midst of news about the oil spill in the Gulf, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy and unemployment and all the negativity in the incessant campaign ads (not that they will end once the Primary Election passes into history after tomorrow), here is a single, simple phrase of music that can have the power to still affect me so deeply.

And then I recall the lines from H.G. Wells' novel, Tono Bungay (which I've never read) that inspired the ending of the symphony,

- - - - - - -
"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...."
- - - - - - -

and I am reminded why art, why music especially is so important to me: because, once all that other stuff passes, the music remains.

- Dick Strawser

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered your blog(s) today and I have to say I really enjoyed reading what you write about Vaughan Williams. The London Symphony means much the same to me, as an occasional visitor who was born near London but left long ago. I've been visiting more often in the last year, though, since my eldest son got a job in Westminster. He would be about the same age as VW was in that photo above!