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Ralph Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony - a brief introduction

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Think of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and your mind will likely immediately turn to The Lark Ascending or the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. But Vaughan Williams was also relatively prolific writer of symphonies, completing no less than 8 of them.

Written shortly before the start of the First World War (in which Vaughan Williams served), the London Symphony was dedicated to the composer George Butterworth, whose life was cut tragically short in the war and who had first suggested to Vaughan Williams that he write a symphony; “We were talking together one day” recalled Vaughan Williams  “when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’”.

Ralph replied that he’d never written a symphony and didn’t intend to, but he was nonetheless spurred into action, and so the London Symphony came about. It wasn’t entirely motivated by Butterworth’s intervention however, as the composer had already worked on some rough sketches for a piece about London, and used these as a starting point for the symphony.

When listening to the piece its probably worth remembering that London then was quite different to London now. Yes, it was the centre of Empire, and a busy, dirty, noisy place, but it was also without today’s urban sprawl, with the countryside on the doorstep and with transport dominated by horse power rather than the car. The London Symphony gives us a glimpse of both sides of the capital of the time.

The symphony opens on Westminster Bridge. A calm scene, gazing over the river, but the peace is swiftly broken by the chimes of Big Ben, and we’re sucked into the noise and bustle of the London rush hour. Subsequent movements take in the peace and quiet of Bloomsbury Square as well as raucous late- evening partying as observed from the Embankment, before the symphony ends on a reflective note

The symphony we hear now is effectively the ‘directors cut’. While the piece was first performed in 1914 the composer came back to it in 1918, making changes. In this period in fact the whole score had to be reconstructed from individual orchestral parts, the original score having been lost, having been sent to a conductor in Germany and subsequently going missing in the chaos of war.

Vaughan Williams made further changes between 1919 and 1920. Still not quite content, in 1933 he revisited it yet again, with the final version being published in 1936. Of course, this has attracted curiosity as to what was changed or cut – and those curious can seek out a recording of the 1914 version, with over 20 minutes of music that was cut from the version we know today, and which Royal Northern Sinfonia will perform.

Royal Northern Sinfonia play Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony at Sage Gateshead on Friday 25 November.