What are the London Symphonies?

A quick guide to Haydn's Symphony No. 104 and Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 2, both of which were inspired by the British capital

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Why did Haydn write a London Symphony?

For centuries, London has been a vibrant centre for music making, and many of the greatest composers have been drawn both by this and its outstanding orchestras. One such was Joseph Haydn, who first came to London on New Year’s Day 1791: in the course of two visits he composed no less than a dozen symphonies for the capital, several of them becoming his most celebrated works.

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All of these have become collectively known as the ‘London Symphonies’, but it is the last of them – No. 104 in D major, composed during his second visit in 1794-95 – which has become known as the London Symphony.

Richly scored by the standards of Haydn’s day, it is a work which seems to reflect the London of that time – grandiose at its start, yet with a hint of the rural character of its suburbs in the finale with its earthy drone and barn dance-like theme.

• Joseph Haydn

• CD Review – Haydn’s London Symphonies

Which parts of London inspired Vaughan Williams?

Just over 120 years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the second of his symphonies, named A London Symphony. Though often thought of as a pastoral composer, Vaughan Williams loved London, living first in Westminster until 1905, then in Chelsea.

For him, the Westminster chimes heard early in his symphony were a natural background to the London he knew. The forte outburst that follows reflects a great city at the crossroads between the bustle of Edwardian England and the hectic world of the 20th century. The second movement, Vaughan Williams said, was inspired by ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon’; and the following lively movement evokes the sounds heard ‘standing on the Westminster embankment at night’.

The visionary finale, Vaughan Williams admitted, took inspiration from HG Wells’s novel Tono-Bungay: ‘England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass.’

• Ralph Vaughan Williams

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