Music for a Great City: London

Pack the bags and ready the passport—I’m delighted to report that I will be visiting London early this fall. It will be my first time in England, as my only previous visit to the UK was a singing tour of Scotland. But my wife lived there for several years right out of college, and she is thrilled to be able to reconnect with old friends and revisit some of her favorite haunts.

Given my love of history, plus English culture generally, I am greatly looking forward to our trip. And as my friends know, I love diving into the music of places I plan to visit—it really helps me connect with a place personally. So in that vein, I am delighted to assemble a London playlist—a dream collection of classical (and classical-ish) music that celebrates this great city.

Here is what I have so far. My list doesn’t just collect my favorite works by English composers, or pull together works inspired by England generally; instead, it presents works that specifically reflect London itself.

If I’ve missed any, please tell me about them in the comments. And if you have recommendations of great places to eat, please share them in the comments section as well! Cheers!

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Ralph Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony #2). Vaughan Williams vies with Jean Sibelius for being the composer closest to my heart. Way back in high school, I ran across his song Silent Noon while participating in a singing competition, and Vaughan Williams and I have been close companions ever since (Silent Noon is still one of my signatures, and I had the distinct pleasure of singing it my mom’s marriage to my stepfather back in the ‘90s). While A London Symphony isn’t my absolute favorite Vaughan Williams work, I dearly love it. It is not a strictly programmatic piece (the composer thought a better title would be “A Symphony by a Londoner”), although there are a few musical quotes—most famously the Westminster Chimes. I heard Osmo and the Minnesota Orchestra perform the work live a few years back, and it was a perfect piece to showcase the Orchestra’s stunning dynamic range. That said, the unbelievably quiet ending of the Third Movement was completely disrupted when an audience member launched into a wild coughing fit . The coughing was so loud and prolonged that my mom actually believed she was going to have to administer medical assistance.

Gustav Holst: Hammersmith. Holst is one of those unfortunate composers to have one work (in this case, The Planets) overshadow everything else they ever wrote. But Holst is by no means a one hit wonder—his music is wonderfully distinct and endlessly fascinating. Hammersmith in particular is a great piece. His daughter Imogen described it best: “Its mood is the outcome of long years of familiarity with the changing crowds and the changing river [Thames]: those Saturday night crowds, who were always good-natured even when they were being pushed of the pavement into the middle of the traffic, and the stall-holders in that narrow lane behind the Broadway, with their unexpected assortment of goods lit up by brilliant flares, and the large woman at the fruit shop who always called him ‘dearie’ when he bought oranges for his Sunday picnics.  As for the river, he had known it since he was a student, when he paced up and down outside William Morris‘s house, discussing Ibsen with earnest young socialists.  During all the years since then, his favorite London walk had been along the river-path to Chiswick. In Hammersmith the river is the background to the crowd: it is a river that goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.”

I understand that Holst composed the work while sitting at a table in the Blue Anchor pub… which may mean I have to give the place a visit.

Joseph Haydn: Symphony #104, London. There are 12 so-called “London Symphonies” by this great master, but the moniker has particularly stuck with the final one of the series, No. 104. It was written in a flurry of activity in 1795, and became a smash hit at its premiere. The composer wrote in his diary, “The hall was filled with a picked audience. The whole company was delighted and so was I. I took in this evening 4000 gulden. One can make as much as this only in England.” This great work has it all—dark drama in the beginning giving way to exuberance.

George Frideric Handel: Water Music. Handel wrote this stunning work to accompany a royal cruise on the Thames, and by all accounts, its premiere was spectacular. In July, 1717, King George I and several aristocrats boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace for an excursion up the Thames toward Chelsea. The king wanted the procession to be a show-stopping spectacle to delight and amaze his subjects, and he commissioned suitable music from Handel as part of the extravaganza. Handel’s music was appropriately magnificent, and specifically scored for big-voiced instruments whose sound would carry across the water to reach the crowds gathered along the shore. The king was so delighted that he demanded the work be repeated at least three times—meaning the orchestra performed nearly four hours straight from about 8 PM to well after midnight.

And we wonder why musicians unionize….

Edward Elgar: Cockaigne Overture (In London Town). Following the disappointing premiere of his monumental The Dream of Gerontius in 1900, Elgar threw his energy into a new composition to bolster his spirits. Cockaigne is, as he described it, “cheerful and Londony, … honest, healthy, humorous and strong, but not vulgar.” I absolutely love it—it is a wonderful evocation of London at the dawn of the 20th Century that drives forward with all the confidence and exuberance of that glittering age.

William Walton: In Honour of the City of London. It is odd… for his patriotic cantata celebrating London, Walton took his text and title from a poem by the 16th Century Scot, William Dunbar. This 16-minute work does a brilliant job of gathering all the sounds of the bustling metropolis to create a vivid portrait of this “sovereign of all cities.” It is relentless, bordering on frantic, but the energy of the great city comes shining through.

John Gay: The Beggar’s Opera. Few musical works have had such a profound, immediate impact as Gay’s 1728 hit, The Beggar’s Opera. This “ballad opera” drew heavily from popular songs instead of Italian-style opera and art music, sparking a musical revolution that lead directly to the creation of modern musical theater. So great was its popularity that traditional operas in England, such as those being composed by Handel, completely fell out of favor; soon thereafter, Handel abandoned opera altogether and turned his attention to composing English-language oratorios such as Messiah. The Beggar’s Opera focuses on a motley crew of cut-throats, beggars, thieves and other assorted underworld figures in a hilarious satire of London high-society. The original has been reprised many times, but the work also is the basis for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera.

Eric Coates: The London Suite. The London Suite, written in 1932, launched Coates’ international career. The work grew in popularity when the “Knightsbridge March” section was used by the BBC as the signature tune for its Saturday night show, In Town Tonight, which ran for 27 years. Coates once wrote, “It is extraordinary the way in which the “Knightsbridge March” never fails to rouse the dullest of audiences. I cannot understand the reason for it, but over and over again, when I have been conducting it in public, both in this country and abroad, the moment the double-basses begin the reiterated quaver beats at the opening I can feel a sensation of excited anticipation coming from the audience and striking me in the back of the head.” So popular was the work that Coates composed a sequel in 1936 called the London Again Suite.

Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This work, like the Beggar’s Opera above, might not fully qualify as “classical,” but the work has been performed by symphony orchestras and traditional opera companies, so I’m squeezing it in. Besides, it’s one of my favorite works of music. I first ran across the work by accident—years back when the show was still new and relatively unknown, some friends asked if our family wanted to go with them to see it. No one knew nothing about it save that it had garnered rave reviews. My folks thought it sounded fun… and so, at the tender age of 11, I saw my first Sondheim show. It has stayed with me ever since—and not just in my nightmares. Sweeney Todd completely revolutionized my ideas about what music could sound like, offering up a miraculous score unlike anything else ever composed. Sweeney Todd also presents a different take on London; in Sondheim’s hands, the city is a metaphor for the horrors and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution.

Whew…after that, I may need to turn back to Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony again….

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These are my top pics. What else?




5 thoughts on “Music for a Great City: London

  1. An interesting piece! You always do a great job. At times the posts run a little long for me, but only due to my impatience at the internet. Will look forward to your continuing vigilance and comments in respect to the MN ORCH. Maybe you could write a piece about Mexico and your past history there. You did comment on music in Mexico once, as not being in the backwater culturally at all. The government gives strong support to the arts, especially orchestras. Admission is either free or for a very low cost. I live south of border now. My enjoyment of the Twin Cities cultural scene is all to I appreciate what you do. Certainly, the mainstream media would never give such coverage to the arts.


  2. Pingback: A London Holiday | Mask of the Flower Prince

  3. How about Bax’s Tintagel? I remember hearing that for the first time back in the early 80’s with the MN Orch conducted by Sir Neville…


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