So, George said to Ralph,
“You should write a symphony.”
He pondered the thought.
He had some sketches,
Some tone poems that would do,
And he set to work.
After the debut,
He sent it to Germany
To a conductor.
It never got there.
A war broke out; it was lost.
What would Ralph do now?
Ralph called his friend George,
Who had been reviewing it
As it was written.
And with some others,
Ralph rebuilt the symphony.
It would live again!
That’s the story of
A London Symphony of
One Ralph Vaughan Williams.
We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’. I answered… that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to… I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for… a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form… From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished…1
The Butterworth in the quote is English composer George Butterworth, a personal favorite of mine. Vaughan Williams dedicated A London Symphony to Butterworth.
The symphony was first performed in 1914. Thereafter, Vaughan Williams sent the score to conductor Fritz Busch in Germany.
After it was posted, World War I broke out. In the chaos that ensued, the score really was lost in the mail.
Vaughan Williams called upon Butterworth and some others to help him rebuild the symphony from sketches and orchestral parts he still had.
Finally, the symphony was reconstructed. But that’s not the end of the story.
This 1913 version underwent several revisions. Vaughan Williams published the 1920 version. He revisited it again, and the 1933 version explicitly states that earlier versions should not be performed. He revised it again, and published a new version in 1936, and that’s the version that is performed today.
Vaughan Williams’s widow permitted one recording of the original 1913 score. She was so happy with the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox, that subsequent performances have been made possible.3
Opinions differ strongly about these two versions. Some say Vaughan Williams said not to perform the earlier one; they say that later editing improved the symphony, giving it a tighter, more cohesive structure.
Some, however, say the removal of nearly 20 minutes of material from the 1913 version totally changed the character of the work. In its original version it is more like the tone poems it derived from, less like a symphony, and it is a darker, more contemplative work. They say Vaughan Williams cut out some beautiful melodies for the sake of conciseness. But then Vaughan Williams himself described one removed passage as “a bad hymn tune.”2
I’m not sure where I stand on this. I can see both sides. I’ve listened to both, and I’ll give you links to performances of both.
Regardless of which you prefer, you will be treated to a picture of a bustling London through its day, and, in the end, through the ages.
I hope you will enjoy it.
- Lloyd, Stephen, in Ralph Vaughan Williams in Perspective, ed. Lewis Foreman, Albion Music Ltd, 1998. “The quoted text in (a) is a portmanteau of two originals, the bulk being from a letter to Sir Alexander Butterworth, father of the composer” via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
- McGregor, Andrew, “Vaughan Williams. A London Symphony. Review” http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/88cz/
- You can see the revised score at http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP60779-Vaughan-Williams_-_Symphony_No._2_(orch._score).pdf.
Image attribution: C. Gallant, 2017.