About this Recording
8.550734 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 2, 'London' / The Wasps Overture

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958)

A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)
Overture: The Wasps

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney in 1872, the son of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father's and mother's side was of some intellectual distinction. His father was descended from a family eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and his grandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved to live with his mother's father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child Vaughan Williams learned the piano and the violin and received a conventional upper middle class education at Charterhouse, after which he delayed entry to Cambridge, preferring instead to study at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt, later Master of the Queen's Musick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he took up his place at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History, but took composition lessons from Charles Wood. After graduation in both Music and History, he returned to the Royal College, where he studied composition with Stanford, and, perhaps more Iimportant, became a friend of a fellow-student Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove of great importance in frank exchanges of views on one another's compositions in the years following.

In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took the opportunity to visit Berlin, where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. In England he turned his attention to the collection of folk-music in various regions of the country, an interest that materially influenced the shape of his musical language. In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly in orchestration, from Ravel, and had by now begun to make a reputation for himself as a composer, not least with the first performance in 1910 of his first symphony, A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The even tenor of his life was interrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corps. 1914 was also the year of A London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work for violin and orchestra, A Lark Ascending. Three years later, after service in Salonica that seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to France, where he was also able to make some use of his abilities as a musician.

After the war Vaughan Williams returned to the Royal College of Music, now as a professor of composition, a position he retained until 1938. In these years he came to occupy a commanding position in the musical life of the country, with a series of compositions that seemed essentially English, the apparent successor of Elgar, although his musical language was markedly different. The second war brought the challenge of composition for the cinema, with notable scores for The 49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 in music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the basis of his later Sinfonia Antarctica, the seventh of his nine symphonies. Other works of the last decade of his life included two more symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, a violin sonata and concertos for harmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventures for an octogenarian. He died in August 1958, four months after the first performance of his last symphony.

The second of the symphonies of Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, composed, as he himself said, by a Londoner, owed its origin to the encouragement of George Butterworth. It was he who urged Vaughan Williams to attempt a symphony, against his original intentions and inclination. There had been earlier sketches for a symphony, but these had been abandoned. Plans had been made, however, for a symphonic poem on the theme of London, and this material the composer decided to recast in symphonic form. The work was given its first performance under Geoffrey Toye in 1914, to undergo slight changes in the war years and revision for a further performance in 1920 under Albert Coates. There were later revisions in subsequent years, notably for performances under Sir Thomas Beecham in the 1930s.

In A London Symphony Vaughan Williams offers, often with thematic material seemingly derived from the English countryside as much as from the streets of the city, a busy picture of the English capital. The symphony is scored for a large orchestra of piccolo, three flutes, oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons and double bassoon, four horns, pairs of trumpets and cornets, three trombones and tuba, and a percussion section of timpani, side-drum, triangle, bass drum, cymbals and glockenspiel, with two harps and strings. The work opens with what might be mistaken for a regular pea-souper, bearing marked similarities, as Constant Lambert pointed out, to Debussy's La mer. The sound of Big Ben, in harp harmonics, leads to an Allegro risoluto in which the city awakes with a rich medley of thematic material that suggests the varied life of London, with an added nautical flavour. The symphonic exposition is followed by the development of further themes and the transformation of earlier melodies, the recapitulation leading to a great climax, after a quiet opening.

The second movement, marked Lento, introduces a cor anglais solo above a richly harmonized string accompaniment, a traditional melody, it would appear, complemented by the lavender-seller's street-cry later in a movement that is brought to a hushed conclusion by a solo viola. This is followed by a Scherzo, a Nocturne only in the sense that it provides a lively enough picture at first of night-life in an unsleeping London, with themes and fragments of themes, as well as mouth-organ and street barrel-organ heard in the Trio, a reminiscence perhaps of Stravinsky's Butter Fair in Petrushka, before the city eventually sleeps and all lies still. The last movement, with its echoes of the first, brings London awake again, with a stirring march. The sound of Big Ben introduces a final Epilogue in which the mists once again descend and a solo violin leads the way to the final string chords, dying away to nothing.

The incidental music by Vaughan Williams for Aristophanes' comedy The Wasps was written in 1909 for an undergraduate production at Cambridge, where a curiously English tradition of classical Greek drama in the original language is still jealously guarded. The play itself, although it has a chorus of old men buzzing like wasps, is a satirical attack on the political leaders of Athens in the late fifth century B.C.. Here the insects of the title are old men with a mania for jury-service and the kitchen utensils that march past in further incidental music for the play are participants in a mock-trial, designed to dissuade the protagonist's father, Procleon, from his mania. The composer drew from the originally more extensive vocal and instrumental music for the play a suite of five movements, of which the Overture is most often heard. This opens with the buzzing of the litigious maniacs, but proceeds to a more solidly English form of music in a work couched in traditional tripartite sonata-form.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was founded on 22nd May 1893 by Dan Godfrey, the son of a Victorian band-master. At first it was known as the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra and provided music for one of the most prosperous resorts on the South coast of England. Dan Godfrey served as principal conductor for the next forty years and established one of the most famous orchestras in Great Britain. Since then the orchestra has worked under a succession of distinguished Principal Conductors, the most recent being Sir Charles Groves, Constantin Silvestri, Paavo Berglund and Rudolf Barshai. In September 1988 the American conductor Andrew Litton was appointed Principal Conductor, with Kees Bakels as Principal Guest Conductor.

In May 1993 the orchestra launched its centenary celebrations, and during the ensuing year will undertake its first tour of the United States of America. The visit consolidates a touring history which has included Russia, Hong Kong, Spain, France, Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Czecho-Slovakia, and Poland.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has recorded for a number of labels, with highly acclaimed interpretations of the complete Tchaikovsky Symphonies and the complete cycle of Vaughan Williams Symphonies for Naxos.

Kees Bakels
Kees Bakels was born in Amsterdam, beginning his musical career as a violinist. He studied conducting at the Amsterdam Conservatory and at the Academy Chigiana in Siena. During his studies he became Assistant Conductor of the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and subsequently held the position of Associate Conductor with that orchestra. At the same time he became Principal, Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, which he has directed in festivals in Finland, Belgium and Spain.

Kees Bakels has conducted all the major Dutch orchestras, as well as orchestras in Europe and Russia. He has also directed many concerts with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1985 conducted his first London Promenade concert with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. From the beginning of his career, Kees Bakels has concentrated as much on opera as on the symphonic repertoire and has conducted English National Opera productions of Aida and Fidelio and productions by the Welsh National Opera of La Bohème and Die Zauberflöte. He has also specialised in the performance of lesser known operas by Mascagni and Leoncavallo and earlier works by Verdi, in the concert-hall, broadcasting studio and opera-house. He became Principal Guest Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in September 1988, and in 1991 he was made Principal Guest Conductor in recognition of his close relationship with the orchestra.

Business Partners in the Arts are a group of businesses that have combined some of their promotional resources to support the arts in the South West of England. Each partner firm believes that the arts have a critical effect on the social and economic structure of the local community. They also want to see the region's international orchestra flourish and expand, providing even more services to a regular touring area that stretches across most of southern England.

The Business Partnership has helped many arts organizations since it was first established in 1989. Founder members, BT, through their Exeter office, and Bearnes, the art auctioneers, were joined almost immediately by Renwicks Garages, the West country VW and Peugeot dealer, and Bristol's well known J T Group. More recently, Bray Leino, the Devon based advertising group, and Clerical Medical, have joined the organization.

In supporting the Bournemouth Orchestras, and this recording, the Partner firms hope to allow a wider public a chance to hear these important works, and perhaps help persuade other hesitant corporations to support the Arts.

Close the window