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3 October 2015
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his 6th Symphony partly in reaction to the land mine that fell on the Café de Paris in London during the Second World War, a bomb which killed Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and members of his West Indian Dance Band Orchestra who were performing there.
Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 6, played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
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In a reference to the victims of that tragedy of war we hear in the symphony’s third movement the snaky, sinuous but ethereal sound of a saxophone backed up with a pulsing jazz beat. But it is framed by a piece which is tumultuous and angry, broken with a few moments of introspection and a short window of radiant beauty towards the end of the first movement. The fourth and final movement rounds the symphony off with a feeling of drifting and desolation, the strings evoking a gasping, uneven breath dying out to nothingness.
For me, it is a symphony for the Labour Party right now.
The piece, played with marvellous visceral energy in this version by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, starts off furiously with great forces crashing and banging against one another. The way I am hearing it now referring to Labour, this first movement depicts the hard left busting in, bringing irresistible hard-driving momentum and completely overwhelming the Blairite New Labour and Brownite tendencies in the leadership race. A beautiful melancholic melody briefly pulls us away, offering a pause for breath and some clarity. But it soon resigns itself to defeat, submitting to the more powerful forces.
The second movement (starting at 8.10) seems to be where we are now: adjusting and adapting to the new reality: a place full of edginess and foreboding but still ticking along with a repeated rat-a-tat to keep us grounded. This ebbs and flows until coming to a head with a great collision (perhaps with the electorate next year?), marked by a fusillade of noise which then declines into quiet distress.
The third movement (starting at 17.18) sees a new push with renewed fury and energy, but offering little joy or solace except for the ethereal saxophone solos suggesting a different and better world that could have been. After a brief lull it breaks out into a relentless, crashing, compulsive tumult of noise. But this soon breaks down, giving way to the final movement, the Epilogue.
At the time when the symphony was released to the world in 1948 (and it was played live more than a hundred times within two years), some critics interpreted this eerie finale as like wandering in the ruins of a nuclear holocaust. Vaughan Williams himself rejected these interpretations, quoting Prospero’s words from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.
In those terms it evokes what some Labour people were saying about party unity during the Ed Miliband years: ‘the quietness of the grave’.
I’m not one for making prophecies, but the symphony seems to have a particular resonance at the moment.
It's like the first movement has happened, the second is happening now and the angry clashes of the third will follow sooner or later when the resurgent hard left finds its way blocked and lashes out in a final confrontation against challengers and critics.
The challenge for those who see disaster ahead is to get into a position where they can win that confrontation and prevent this symphony’s bleak final movement coming to pass. Without some sort of major change and intervention, it surely will though. The old ways do not work anymore, if they ever did indeed without the charisma and flawed vision of Tony Blair.
From the ‘Blue Labour’ or ‘One Nation Labour’ tendency, Jon Cruddas has been busy producing some fascinating analysis on the last election and what it means for Labour. Frank Field has also been getting out there, pushing his prescient but unpopular messages (with the Labour tribe) about the importance of national borders in the ultra-globalised environment in which we find ourselves (and also latterly on tax credits).
From the more mainstream centrist wing of Labour, Luke Akehurst has been doing sterling work promoting the ‘Labour First’ grouping as a countervailing force to the Corbynistas, with new deputy leader Tom Watson and leadership candidate Yvette Cooper notable attendees at its meeting during the Brighton conference.
We shall see what happens. Jeremy Corbyn has a huge mandate from members and supporters that should be respected. It could easily break down though, especially if and when election results go against Labour next May and the unions decide it’s time to be more realistic. Whether a reversion to a new version of the old status quo will prove to be the way forward remains to be seen.
Personally, I have serious doubts and am more interested in what the likes of Cruddas and Field have to say. However, as we can hear in the 6th Symphony featured here, a nice tune counts for little against brute political force.
For more on Vaughan Williams and his music, have a look at the companion piece to this article: ‘Vaughan Williams: a British music for the world’.
Ralph Vaughan Williams is perhaps Britain’s greatest ever classical composer, but he remains something of an outsider in the world of classical music. His tunes are perhaps a little too tuneful, lowering the tone by appealing rather too readily to those uninitiated into what one should like and value.
All the more reason to love and value him and his music I say.
The companion piece to this one focused on Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony, a furious piece which, for me, evokes the current travails of the Labour Party and wider left in Britain. I was going to add a few lines to that piece suggesting some more tunes of Vaughan Williams that readers might like to check out. But those few lines became a few paragraphs and then several paragraphs. So here we are...
The first thing I wanted to do was showcase music of a different character to the 6th Symphony. The 6th is probably my favourite of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, at least in that version, but it is by no means typical.
A good alternative place to start is the ‘London’ Symphony, which offers a wonderful tableau of Britain's capital city immediately before the First World War. It still has great resonance today – from the hustle and bustle of the first movement to the beautiful second movement and depictions of the poor and unemployed in the last. Also in the years before World War One, Vaughan Williams, a committed socialist, wrote his most loved shorter pieces: the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending (the latter completed after the war and evoking the sound of freedom – delicate, fragile and precious).
Normally you would advise people not to check under the line for comments on videos and articles. The opposite is the case with Vaughan Williams; scroll downwards from each of these videos and you will find a cascade of love and appreciation, both for the music and for those who lovingly compile images to go with it - and not just from England or Britain but from all over the world.
The music that people love and appreciate mirrors the person. By all accounts Vaughan Williams was a generous, ebullient and humorous man, and also someone who was prepared to commit himself. In his forties, he volunteered for military service in the First World War when he wasn’t required to and served as a stretcher bearer on the Somme. His ‘Pastoral’ Symphony written following the war reflects on that time; a reserved, enigmatic piece, it finally breaks down during the final movement (which starts at 24.15 on that link and at 27.40 on this live version from the Proms, featuring, unusually, a male soloist). He lost many good friends during that war, including fellow composers.
But during the Second World War and into his seventies, Vaughan Williams did a different sort of war work, composing music for films including 49th Parallel, a 1941 picture intended to draw support from the United States when the US was still officially neutral. In 1943, he released his 5th Symphony, for many people his best, including the beautiful third movement, the Romanza.
Despite the crashing brutality of the 6th Symphony and the 4th Symphony, which he composed in the 1930s while Hitler was gaining prominence, it is principally beauty and sweetness that marks out Vaughan Williams’ contribution to British and world music. So much of that comes from the folk songs and poetry that he sought out (often over lashings of ale), as found in the lullaby-like Welsh hymn Rhosymedre, the English Folk Song Suite, the Norfolk Rhapsodies, including No. 2 here and also his many choral works, including adaptations of George Herbert’s ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ and the Scottish Burns song Ca’ The Yowes.
I am still discovering these wonderful works for myself: an ongoing joy and pleasure. I hope others feel the same. But I also hope Vaughan Williams’ music and that of others might help to inform our politics, by showing elements of ourselves to ourselves – elements that we have maybe not known before but would like to preserve and treasure (as Vaughan Williams himself looked to do with what he discovered).
Also, an important point from Vaughan Williams himself: just because I love and write about this music, that doesn’t mean it's mine. It's for anyone and everyone to love and enjoy and interpret as they like.