Portrait of a city


Playing this tomorrow, I’ve loved getting to know it. Vaughan Williams wrote in several different styles through his life (folksy, bombastic, nostalgic, mystical, jazzy, harshly modern and high Edwardian). His symphonies are especially diverse, and his second – A London Symphony – opens with a shifting, misty scene for strings and low wind and brass that conjures the river Thames and is completely different from the flourishing optimism of “behold the sea!” that opens his first symphony.

It’s not till over 3 minutes in (the length of most pop songs) that you get any bustle, and almost the same again before VW’s sketch of the Cockney cheer and noise of bus horns breaks in. This excellent recording also has a literal portrait of the city accompanying it, with pictures from the late 19th / early 20th century.

Written in 1912 and 1913, premiered in 1914 and  dedicated to a friend who would die two years later at the Somme, where Vaughan Williams was himself a stretcher bearer, going out to collect the wounded and dead and where the shelling was to damage his hearing permanently, this is the last days of an Imperial city  that is already shifting and crumbling. Poignantly the score was sent to Germany for its second premiere and disappeared during the war, leaving Vaughan Williams to reconstruct it from memory in 1918.

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