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Ralph Vaughan Williams:
We wish he'd been our grandfather.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams
October 12, 1872 - August 26, 1958

Where to start? For a good, solid, biography, see the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society's version. And for anyone with even a modicum of experience in choral singing, sit back and enjoy with us, as we revel in this testament to Williams' lifelong devotion to English folk song, both as an art form in and of itself, and an influence on his catalogue of iconic carols and hymns.  He reveled in old melodies, and their myriad texts, reviving and amplifying them with accompaniment as diverse as the songs themselves. 

Five English Folk Songs

Seasoned fans of Bel Canto will note that the fifth song in this collection, "Wassail!," is the eponymous title, and opening number in an old Christmas tradition of ours. We have omitted it from our list in this concert, out of respect for it being early May (see notes to Debussy's Yver, vous n'estes qu'un villain).


Vaughan Williams describes these as "freely arranged" and you might notice that in some he stays close to the original material, but in others he virtually re-composes the song.

The Dark Eyed Sailor

A young girl tells a passing sailor of her lost love, who turns out to  actually be that guy, but so changed by his time at sea that she doesn't recognize him. He produces half a ring she gave to him when he went to sea (apparently, that was a thing) and all is good and sweet again. Williams writes this out as a drama, using the choir sections as various voices, and charitably using the altos as narrator (altos are too often overlooked, and Williams had a fondness). 

In The Spring Time of The Year

An adaptation of a Norfolk ballad, "Lovely On The Water," of which Williams only uses the first two of its eight stanzas. Originally, another sad maritime couple reflects on the inevitable parting of ways (this time due to war) but Williams' expurgation turns it into an evocation of spring. 

Just As The Tide Was Flowing

Williams' genteel sensibilities cleaned this one up quite a bit. His treatment of the music remains true to the original, but his words portray a sailor meeting and wooing his true love. Originally, the sailor and the girl get jiggy, she falls for him, and then offers up twenty pounds as incentive for a more meaningful relationship, which he then spends on rum and loose(er) women. 

The Lover's Ghost

Again, Williams changes the original words and context of the song, this time avoiding it coming off as downright disturbing. The original 17th century ballad, A Warning For Married Women (alternatively "Daemon Lover" and "The House Carpenter") tells the story of yet another woman besotted with, and betrothed to a sailor who goes off and drowns, but this time she gets herself back out there and marries a local carpenter, only to have the spirit of the sailor come back and haul her out to sea in his ship, which he then sinks, sending her adulterous soul to hell. Williams skips the bulk of this, turning the whole thing into a more palatable and less misogynistic tale of lost love. 

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