Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony – Work No. 87 in our collection

Ralph Vaughan Williams (12.10.1872 – 26.08.1958) was an English composer born, near to the home of iClassical, in the Cotswold village of Down Ampney, near Cricklade in Gloucestershire where his father was a vicar.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies (written over nearly fifty years), operas, ballets, chamber music, secular and religious vocal pieces, film scores and he was an ardent collector of English folk songs. His most popular works include his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on Greensleeves.

A London Symphony is the second symphony composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The work is sometimes referred to as the Symphony No. 2, though it was not designated as such by the composer. It was first performed in 1914 and was dedicated to Vaughan Williams’ friend and fellow composer George Butterworth. The symphony underwent several revisions at the hands of the composer; the last of which was was published in 1936.

We will leave the composer to describe the symphony:

“There are four movements: The first begins with a slow prelude; this leads to a vigorous allegro—which may perhaps suggest the noise and hurry of London, with its always underlying calm. The second (slow) movement has been called ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon’. This may serve as a clue to the music, but it is not a necessary ‘explanation’ of it. The third movement is a nocturne in [the] form of a scherzo. If the hearer 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, then the ‘Westminster Chimes’ are heard once more: on this it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement. The last movement consists of an agitated theme in three-time, alternating with a march movement, at first solemn and later on energetic. At the end of the finale comes a suggestion of the noise and fever of the first movement—this time much subdued—follows an ‘Epilogue’, in which the slow prelude is developed into a movement of some length.”

Our favourite version of this symphony with its gorgeous orchestral color, particularly in the string writing, is a recording by ‘Tod’ Handley conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1992 but this comes in a 5 CD set Vernon Handley: Champion of British Music. on Warner Classics. So for a single CD Choice we will opt for an award-winning recording, which turns back the clock on the various revisions to the symphony and presents the original 1913 version. This is performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox on a 2001 Chandos release which also includes a performance of a work by the symphony’s dedicatee, George Butterworth; The Banks of Green Willow.

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