The British Isles: A Musical Tour – London

Despite Britain’s green and pleasant land, London has attracted and inspired the vast majority of British and foreign composers – after all, that’s where the money is. But whether letting their hair down in Chelsea or awed by the grandeur of Westminster, composers have nonetheless found plenty to inspire their music.

Holst – Hammersmith
Gustav Holst, director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School (1905-34, succeeded by Howells 1936-62), composed many of his works there in the soundproofed room specially built for him; he was inspired to write Hammersmith for the BBC’s military band.

10 Berkeley Street
Gershwin – Primrose
At this address, in summer 1924, George Gershwin wrote his musical Primrose; this includes the number ‘Berkeley Square and Kew’ and, in a deliberate skit of G & S’s ‘Three little girls from school’, ‘Four little Sirens we’ – a rare instance of Gershwin writing in four-part vocal harmony. This also, notably, was the first musical he had a hand in orchestrating.

Mozart – Symphony No. 1
180 Ebury Street was one-time retreat of the young Wolfgang Amadeus. Touring London in 1764, Mozart’s father, Leopold, was taken ill; the Mozart family repaired to Chelsea, where Mozart composed his first symphony (5 August 1764). Chelsea has since been a fashionable area for the well-to-do, who often entertained leading musicians visiting London.

Vaughan Williams – A London Symphony
The Abbey has been the scene of many a coronation, which has led to the composition of many fine pieces (Handel’s Zadok the Priest, Parry’s I was Glad and Howells’s Behold, O God). The Houses of Parliament and particularly the chimes of Big Ben have surfaced in various works such as Gershwin’s A Foggy Day in London Town and the opening of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony.

The Guildhall
Elgar – Cockaigne Overture
Elgar was inspired to write an overture ‘one dark day in the Guildhall: looking at the memorials of the city’s great past and knowing well the history of its unending charity, I seemed to hear far away in the dim roof a theme, an echo of some noble melody.’

The Tower/Thames
Handel – Water Music
Gilbert & Sullivan wrote the only well-known work inspired by the Tower, Yeoman of the Guard. More inspirational is the river: Handel wrote Water Music for the king’s barge on the Thames 17 July 1717, and Music for the Royal Fireworks 27 April 1749.

St Paul’s Cathedral
Howells – St Paul’s Service
Sir Christopher Wren’s building has one of Britain’s most reverberant acoustics – maintaining choral ensemble there is a feat in itself! Howells nonetheless wrote one of his finest canticles for the choir, the St Paul’s Service, in 1954. Thomas Morley (see ‘The Globe’ below) was organist in the sixteenth century (in the building destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666).

The Globe
Johnson & Morley
Contemporaries of Shakespeare who set the Bard’s verse include the highly versatile Thomas Morley (‘It was a lover and his lass’) and Robert Johnson (‘Where the bee sucks’).

Other works
Haydn – London Symphonies Nos. 93-104 (his pupils reported that his days in London were ‘the happiest in his life’)
Ireland – London Overture
Johann Strauss II – Memories of Covent Garden Waltz

Classic CD magazine, 1998


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