Thoughts following RVW's Symphony No 5 at the Proms
Sir Edward Heath used to joke that the unsigned copies of his books were worth more than the signed ones and he probably had a point, as the groaning book-shelves of charity shops up and down the land still testify. In the 1970s, with his three ‘coffee table’ books on, respectively, sailing, music and travels, he effectively began the trend for celebrity book signing tours. His book on music is a strange hybrid, combining personal anecdotes (many of them unintentionally funny) with a slightly ingenuous ‘beginner’s guide’ to classical music. I helped to edit a second edition of the music book in 1997 and one anecdote has always remained with me.
As I sat in the Royal Albert Hall yesterday evening, listening to Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in finely-wrought and breathtakingly beautiful performances of the middle trio of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, I suddenly found my thoughts drifting to a very different evening in the same hall, when the world premiere of the Fifth Symphony took place on June 24, 1943 attended by one Major ERG Heath, who had recently completed a tour of duty in charge of an anti-aircraft battery defending Liverpool against the onslaught of the Luftwaffe:
‘For once there was no question of queuing; the audience was thinly scattered about the hall…Was the Fifth to be an evocation of the war itself, or was it to be a commentary on it in human terms, filled either with despair or with the patriotic fervour of a previous generation? Vaughan Williams…had never been noted for his conducting, but the bareness and simplicity of his gestures seemed all of a piece with the nobility of the music that followed. An air-raid warning had been given before the concert began, but all that slipped from our minds as we listened, absorbed, to this quiet, almost diffident restatement of faith. As the last movement merged into the well-known chorale Lasst uns Erfreuen…hope returned to us’.
These are difficult days too, with their own existential challenges, but perhaps last night’s full house may have derived a similar spiritual comfort from the balm and dignity of this most English of symphonies.
Michael McManus is an author, writing on subjects including classical music, theatre and politics. His latest book, 'Tory Pride and Prejudice', a history of the Conservative Party and homosexual law reform, was published by Biteback in October 2011.