Collin: 'Fancy seeing you here James'.
James: 'Collin! What are the chances? I didn't know you were a VW fan. Margery meet Collin, we only live down the road from one another'
Margery: 'What a coincidence! Nice to meet you Collin, I'm James' niece.'
Ok. It's not word-for-word, but this is more or less the exchange I overheard when I sat down at the Royal Albert Hall. It's exactly the sort of image I had of a Vaughan Williams audience. A certain sort of staid comfortable middle-class audience who just love listening to the 54 repeats of the Lark Ascending played on Classic FM each day, in between furniture adverts. In my mind, these are the people who still think the Archer's is a form of social realism; the sort who wear socks with sandals and grumble about things like 'principle' and the use of semi-colons.
Andrew Manze, who conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's rendition of Williams' Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies at Prom 46, is keen to challenge this comfortable image. To be sure, the composer's life was often taken up editing hymns, carols and running festivals; it's hardly the image of a revolutionary artist, and has given him a parochial and narrowly English label. Yet the truth is more complex. Williams' is more than a sentimental musical poet, drawing nostalgically on a long-gone past. Maze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a vigorous performance of each symphony – from the initial shock of the Fourth Symphony to the dying embers of the Sixth.
The Fourth Symphony seems to point to the crush of the city rather than the English rural idyll. It's a piece that revels, I feel, in the speed and momentum of the city. A piece in which the listener seems to be in constant movement after an initial sensory overload on the first chord. The symphony takes us from winding and echoing passages, to the rumble of something from below, and then back to the throbbing mob of the streets. It's a nervous and often disorientating work, which seems to have been influenced, in part by a description by the critic H.C. Colles in The Times in 1931 regarding modern music. 'They all rely on the same order of stimuli. The hearer is prodded into activity by dissonance, soothed by sentiment, overwhelmed by the power of the battering climax.'
The Fifth, to my mind, takes us out of the city and lulls us back to the rural scene. It's the Williams' we are more familiar with – the Williams' of Lark Ascending and Fantasia. Yet even here there is something slightly amiss with the first scene. And by the second it's no longer a human pastoral we're inhabiting, but something much more primeval and natural. We begin to duck and weave through the symphony, assailed on all sides by competing strains and chords.
Williams' was famous for grumbling about such literal interpretations. Can't a man just write a nice tune? Yet, if it was conscious or not, his own experience is bound to have impacted upon his works – and it should fall on us to unpick and interpret them. His Sixth symphony, which has been labelled his 'war' symphony contrasts with the Fourth and Fifth in that it doesn't really seem to offer any vision whatsoever. Instead it offers us glimpses of themes which occasionally jut up heroically out of the desolation, before disappearing once again. It's a bleak piece, which asks more questions than it answers, offering no easy visions and full of raw and elemental emotion.
'VW' then, but happily an exciting,dynamic and often challenging performance from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.