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Image for Symphony of a City

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Symphony of a City

1 hour
First broadcast:
Sunday 12 September 2010

Emilia Fox and Richard Armitage read poetry and prose on the theme of a 'Symphony of a City', recording and evoking the movement of a city day. This Words and Music takes as its departure point the silent 'city symphony' documentaries of the 1920s, from Walter Ruttmann's 'Berlin: Symphony of a Great City' to Dziga Vertov's 'The Man with a Movie Camera'. These were among the first documentaries to take the city as both character and subject, highlighting the inherent musicality of the heterogeneous mass of the modernist city.

The rhythms of daily city life are evoked not just in the subject matter of this poetry and prose but in the very rhythms of their performance. And yet, we also see that the study of these daily movements of city life does not just belong to the modernists. The beauty, the energy, and the strange terror of city life, are evoked here by poets and authors across time, from Swift, Dickens and Wordsworth to T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and William Carlos Williams.

Music from Gershwin, Varese, Byrd, Steve Reich and Charles Ives.

Music Played

21 items
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
  • Image for Aaron Copland

    Aaron Copland Quiet City

    Performer: The New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

    Deutsche Grammophon

  • William Wordsworth

    Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Richard Armitage

  • John dos Passos

    Manhattan Transfer, Book I, Chapter I – Great Lady on a White Horse, Emilia Fox.

  • Image for Steve Reich

    Steve Reich City Life. I – 'Check it out'.

    Performer: Ensemble Modern, conducted by Peter Rundel.


  • William Carlos Williams

    Overture to a Dance of Locomotives, Richard Armitage.

  • Image for George Gershwin

    George Gershwin An American in Paris

    Performer: Jazzogene Orchestra, Jean-Luc Fillon (conductor), Georges Rabol (piano). Arrangement Jean-Luc Fillon.

    Opus 111

  • Virginia Woolf

    Mrs Dalloway, Emilia Fox.

  • Image for James Rhodes

    James Rhodes Estampes, III: Jardins sous la pluie.

    Performer: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)


  • Jonathan Swift

    A Description of a City Shower. Emilia Fox.

  • Charles Dickens

    Bleak House. Emilia Fox.

  • Image for Edgard Varèse

    Edgard Varèse Ameriques

    Performer: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez

    Deutsche Grammophon

  • John Dos Passos

    Manhattan Transfer, Book II, Chapter V – Went to the Animals’ Fair. Richard Armitage.

  • T. S. Eliot

    Silence, Richard Armitage

  • Image for Arvo Pärt

    Arvo Pärt Fur Alina

    Performer: Alexei Lubimov (piano)


  • Image for Ralph McTell

    Ralph McTell Streets of London

    Performer: Ralph McTell

    TPGCD 12

  • Image for Charles Ives

    Charles Ives Central Park in the Dark

    Performer: Saint Louise Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

    Red Seal

  • John dos Passos

    Manhattan Transfer, Book I, Chapter V – Steam-Roller, Emilia Fox

  • T. S. Eliot

    Preludes, Richard Armitage

  • Image for Burke Van Heusen

    Burke Van Heusen Moonlight Becomes You

    Performer: Chet Baker and band.

    Pacific Jazz

  • Samuel Coleridge

    A Silent City

  • Image for William Byrd

    William Byrd Civitas sancti tui

    Performer: The Hilliard Ensemble,


  • Emilia Fox

    Emilia Fox

  • Richard Armitage

    Richard Armitage

  • Producer's Note

    This Words and Music takes as its departure point the silent 'city symphony' documentaries of the 1920s. This little known genre of documentaries were among the first to treat the modernist city as force of art in itself, focusing on the heterogeneous mass and movements of the city as a whole, not just the stories of single inhabitants.

    These documentaries took the city day as their basis, frequently being divided into four or five movements. From Walter Ruttmann's 'Berlin: Symphony of a Great City' to Dziga Vertov's 'The Man with a Movie Camera' these documentaries not only exemplified and created new filmic techniques they highlighted the movement, and indeed the musicality of the modernist city.

    To take a style of silent film as an inspiration for a radio programme may seem a slight contradiction in terms but the emphasis on evoking city life through filmic techniques was not the sole domain of these film-makers. Instead, this sense of expressing through actualising - allowing the techniques of the artwork to be and express the subject matter - is reflected in much of the poetry, prose and music of the modernists.

    This then, was my departure point – an aim to create a Symphony of a City, depicting a city day not just through the narratives of this poetry and music but through the very sounds constituting these pieces.

    And yet, it was not just the modernists who evoked, celebrated or expressed their terror at the city. Cities in all their different guises have evoked responses from artists throughout time and so we see here a range of those response and evocations.

    We begin with the tantalising vision of a city expressed in Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ set against the simplicity of Copland’s ‘Quiet City’, written originally as a haunting backdrop for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name.

    But, the city day, and in particular the modernist city does not keep still. An extract from John dos Passos’ ‘Manhattan Transfer’ brings us to life, and perhaps back to earth, as do the street sounds in Steve Reich’s ‘City Life’.

    I’ve used three extracts in total from dos Passos’ fantastic novel ‘Manhattan Transfer’. The three used here are all epigraphs to chapters, a camera eye, like that of Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ taking a snapshot of city life but with a beautiful prose rhythm that places us within the drive of ongoing city life.

    William Carlos Williams’ ‘Overture to a Dance of Locomotives’ adds to our sense of urgency, finishing with the unstoppable dance of the city also being celebrated in the rhythms of Gershwin’s ‘American in Paris’.

    Emilia Fox leads us through the scherzo-like central movement of our symphony, mainly, but not always, delighting in the moments of the city day, from the glorious boom of Big Ben in Mrs Dalloway to the City Shower, treated with delightful impunity by Jonathan Swift. Dickens’ treatment of the ‘implacable November weather’ also raises a smile, with his not so delightful ‘megalosaurus’.

    Yet, with the aid of dos Passos the city races forward into rush hour. Here we see a different city– no joyful evocation of its busy delights but instead the terror that lies in the silence at the heart of such business. The loneliness of the city is also expressed beautifully by Ralph McTell’s simple depiction of those all too familiar lonely characters on the city streets around the world.

    I was struck when putting this programme together by the similarity of the simple evocations contained in much of the city orchestral music of the early twentieth century. The Copland, Ives and Varese featured here all contain a very simple, almost restrained air to them but also occasionally burst out into moments of action. Rather than avoid this similarity I felt it was a key to this evocation of the city day: this ongoing hum, the ongoing restraint featured by all of these composers. This then becomes almost the leitmotif of this city symphony, the way in which the city day changes but is always accompanied and evoked by the strange, almost restless quiet running underneath.

    We finish with Byrd’s ‘Sancti civitas tui’, an evocation in itself of the disjunct between the beauty and business of city life and the loneliness and desolation that can lie beneath, reminding us that such disjuncts are not the exclusive domain of the modernists after all. The beauty of the music is undercut by the meaning of its words; Byrd reminds us that ‘The holy cities are a wilderness. Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.’

    Producer: Rosie Childs.


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