A Symphony for the Labour Party (Vaughan Williams’ 6th)
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’.