Proms 2013, Royal Albert Hall
12 July – 7 September
With this year’s world-famous Promenade Concerts now in full swing, what better time to recall the wealth of music of every kind that London itself has inspired over the years.
It was Georgian London, with its theatres, coffee houses and the riches from its global trade that George Frideric Handel celebrated in some of his best-loved music. His Water Music was written to accompany an outing on the Thames by George I in the Royal Barge. Some years later Handel composed his Music for the Royal Fireworks, to be played during a firework display in London’s Green Park, this time to celebrate the Treaty of Aix-la- Chapelle that ended the War of the Austrian Succession. It was no fault of Handel’s that the event nearly ended in disaster when the structure housing the fireworks caught fire.
The Tower of London is the centrepiece of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Yeomen of the Guard. But musically it was Sir Edward Elgar and the young Ralph Vaughan Williams that best captured the spirit of late Victorian and Edwardian London.
Elgar portrayed the city at its peak of imperial pride in his concert overture Cockaigne, subtitled ‘In London Town’. The medieval word ‘cockaigne’ refers to a mythical land of riches and luxury. It also gave rise to ‘cockney’ to describe anyone born within the sound of Bow Bells. Elgar’s score wonderfully translates these images into music of suitably imperial pride and swagger, though at one point the muted strains of a Salvation Army Band remind us of the city’s poor and destitute who lived in the shadow of all that pomp.
Vaughan Williams was born deep in the English countryside but spent much of his life in London, and his London Symphony (Symphony no 2) conjures a poetic vision of the great smoky city, with hushed echoes of the chimes of Big Ben, the gaiety of a fair on Hampstead Heath, and more echoes of old London street cries.
Vaughan Williams’s friend Gustav Holst added another impression of a part of London he loved in his orchestral piece Hammersmith, contrasting the dark, steady flow of the river at night with the bright lights and bustle of the neighbouring streets.
In the 1930s, John Ireland painted a more relaxed and urbane picture of the city in his beautifully crafted London Overture, with its jaunty bus conductor’s call of ‘Piccadilly’. Ireland also wrote a number of charming piano cameos of London, including ‘Chelsea Reach’, ‘Soho Forenoons’ and the delightfully cheeky ‘Ragamuffin.’
Enter Eric Coates, whose musical portraits of some of London’s best-known places and landmarks are classics of light orchestral music. ‘Westminster’, ‘Covent Garden’, ‘Oxford Street’ and ‘Mayfair’, are movements from his two orchestral London suites. Most famous of all is his ‘Knightsbridge March.’ This rang in the ears of millions of listeners as the signature tune to one of BBC radio’s longest-running programmes, ‘In Town Tonight.’ ‘London Calling’ and ‘London Bridge March’ are two more delightful pieces from Eric Coates’s prolific pen.
Canadian Robert Farnon was another master of light orchestral music, and another composer to introduce the famous chimes of Big Ben into his lilting ‘Westminster Waltz.’
Songs about London are legion. Generations of children have sung and danced to such traditional and much loved folk songs and nursery rhymes as ‘London Bridge Has Fallen Down (My Fair Lady)’ and ‘Oranges and Lemons (Say the Bells of St Clements).’
London’s Victorian and Edwardian music halls rocked to the strains of ‘Burlington Bertie From Bow’, ‘Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road’, and ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand (Have a Banana!)’. Bud Flanagan, a big show business name in the 1930s and 1940s, came up with ‘Underneath the Arches’, putting a brave face on the homeless who slept beneath the arches of Charing Cross station. While the stage and screen musical Me And My Girl got the whole world ‘Doing The Lambeth Walk (Oi!)’, to music by Noel Gay.
The Blitz inspired Noel Coward’s song ‘London Pride’, taking its title from the popular name of a little flower. Writer and broadcaster Hubert Gregg came up with his more openly sentimental ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner’. Another well-known songsmith, English-born Carroll Coates, contributed ‘London By Night’, memorably recorded by Frank Sinatra.
And never forget the Nightingale that sang his heart out in Berkeley Square, words by Eric Maschwitz and music by Manning Sherwin.