Piece of the Week: Five English Folk Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Five English Folksongs

Ralph Vaughan Williams is part of a great tradition of British composers who transcribed melodies from the vast oral tradition of folk music and then incorporated these tunes into their own orchestral and choral pieces. This late-19th and early-20th century movement, which also included the composers Hubert Parry and Gustav Holst, came to be called the English Musical Renaissance, and produced pieces that remain beloved staples of the choral, band and orchestral repertoires to this day (not to mention a particularly romantic view of Britishness that includes tweed jackets, rambles around the English countryside, and 5 o’clock tea service). Vaughan Williams originally wrote Five English Folk Songs in 1913 as a choral piece, and it has been a staple of choirs ever since. This new transcription by Evan Feldman makes this bouncy and fun piece available for concert band. It includes all five movements of the original piece: “The Dark Eyed Sailor,” “The Spring Time of the Year,” “Just as the Tide was Flowing,” “The Lover’s Ghost” and “Wassail Song.” As the arranger’s notes point out, “colorful scoring allows the band to shine in tutti and chamber textures, and generous cross-cueing provides options for soloists.”

Audio Sample:

Audio provided by Tierolff-Muziekcentrale.

Composer Biography:

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, England on October 12, 1872 and died in London on August 26, 1958. He was the most important English composer of his generation and largely responsible for the revival of English music in the 20th century. Interested in the piano, violin and composition at an early age, Vaughan Williams attended the Royal College of Music at age eighteen. Although he made very slow progress in his studies as a composer, he persevered; studying with Bruch in Germany and Ravel in Paris. His early works contain elements of style that were to carry through most of his compositional life; a folksong-like melody from his love of the English folksong and a modal character derived from his admiration for Elizabethan and Jacobean composers. He never abandoned tonality, but he did use polytonality, bitonality and agglomerations of parallel chords in ways which were independent of the harmonic implications of the melody. Most of his works are for voices and orchestra, with an almost equal number of choral and solo works and hymns. He also composed large symphonic works, stage works and film scores but practically nothing for piano or small orchestra. English composers had been largely unnoticed on the international scene until the compositions of Vaughan Williams and his friend, Gustav Holst. Both were visionary men, who brought a new, yet still characteristically English flavor to the music of the 20th century.

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