Ralph Vaughan Williams’s contribution of music to the Christmas Season is extensive. The listener need only think of the cantata Hodie, the Fantasia on Christmas Carols, the masque On Christmas Night and the nativity play The First Nowell. Add to these numerous arrangements of carols and seasonal folk-songs for several hymn-books. One Yuletide work that seems to be largely forgotten is the final section of his Folk Songs of the Four Seasons.
RVW wrote in the programme note for the premiere: ‘When I undertook to write a Folk Song Cantata for the Women’s Institutes I set my mind to work to find some unifying idea which would bind the whole together. It was not long before I discovered the necessary link—the calendar. The subjects of our folk songs, whether they deal with romance, tragedy, conviviality or legend, have a background of nature and its seasons.’ For the ‘Winter Season’ RVW wanted to express ‘the joy of Christmas…set in its true background of frost and snow.’ (cited Kennedy, Michael, A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1996).
The cantata was written during 1949 and presents 15 traditional folk songs arranged for women’s voices and orchestra. The ‘Winter’ section contains four well-known carols: ‘Children’s Christmas Song’, ‘Wassail Song,’ ‘In Bethlehem City’ and ‘God bless the Master’.
Michael Kennedy has written (The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, OUP, 1964) that Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is ‘a labour of love, an old and practised hand returning to his first enthusiasm, an enchanting work, gay, touching, invigorating and timeless.’
There is a detailed essay by Lorna Gibson on 'Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Women’s Institute’ in the Journal of the RVW Society No. 30 (June 2004): 7–8. A major section of Frank Howes’ The Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, London, 1954, presents a considerable analysis of the entire work.
The work was first performed in its entirety at the Royal Albert Hall on 15 June 1950, during the National Singing Festival of [the] National Federation of Women’s Institutes. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This included RVWs Fantasia on Greensleeves, George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, Henry Purcell’s Trumpet Tune and Air, Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings and an arrangement by Arnold Foster of RVWs Prelude on the Welsh Hymn Tune Rhosymedre. The Festival opened with ‘Jerusalem’ and concluded with ‘Land of my Fathers’.
Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of her husband, wrote that ‘The Albert Hall was packed, and when the choirs rose to their feet it was strange to find that the audience seemed far fewer than the performers…’ She relates that ‘when they started to sing there was a freshness and sweetness in their voices that matched the songs…’
The four carols selected for the ‘Winter’ section are presented in varying vocal and instrumental arrangements. ‘The Children’s Christmas Song’ is preceded by an introduction, before the two-part chorus sing the boisterous folk-song collected from the village of Hooton Roberts (near Rotherham) in Yorkshire.
We’ve been a while a-wandering
Amongst the leaves so green,
But now we come a-wassailing,
So plainly to be seen.
For its Christmas time, when we travel far and near;
May God bless you and send you a happy new year.
The ‘Wassail Song’ is written as a unison song with an added elaborate descant. The accompaniment is robust, reflecting the virility of the words. The tune was collected by Vaughan Williams in Gloucestershire. It is a drinking song to reassure the people of a bountiful crop of corn next season. This carol was included by the composer in Five English Folk Songs, composed in 1913.
‘Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of the white Maple tree;
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.’
The third carol, ‘In Bethlehem City’, is a beautiful arrangement for three parts (soprano I, soprano II and alto). Apart for a very short introduction, it is unaccompanied. This is adapted from the carol ‘A Virgin Most Pure’.
In Bethlehem City in Judea it was
That Joseph and Mary together did pass,
All for to be taxed when thither they came,
For Caesar Augustus commanded the same.
Then let us be merry, cast sorrow aside,
Our Saviour Christ Jesus was born on this tide.
The final folk-song of ‘Winter’ is ‘God Bless the Master of this house’. This is part of the Sussex Mummers Carol, which was originally collected by Lucy Broadwood.
All the voices join in unison with an optional descant. There is a hearty accompaniment with many parallel first inversion chords supporting this expansive ‘lento maestoso’.
God bless the Master of this house
With happiness beside;
Where e’er his body rides or walks,
Lord Jesus be his guide
The Times (16 June 1950) described how thousands of members of women’s institutes from all the country had assembled at the Albert Hall to give the first performance of the RVW’s new work. As to the music, the critic noted that the 15 songs ‘are lightly strung together and arranged so as to provide [a] variety of texture for massed unison voices and for two-and three-part smaller choirs: a few are unaccompanied; some have descants; in a word, the greatest ingenuity has been employed to avoid the tonal monotony of unrelieved female voices.’
These folk songs are a perfect fusion of ‘the English tradition and the English composer’ that results in music of ‘immediate and penetrating appeal to the emotions, because it speaks to us of what is in our bones.’ As to the performance itself, the ‘result was astonishing for its accuracy, homogeneity of tone...diction, confidence of attack and precision of ensemble.’ It is hardly surprising that after the work concluded the composer himself conducted the final folk-song (‘God bless the Master’) as an encore. The remainder of the concert included English orchestral music conducted by Sir Adrian.
Frank Howes (op. cit.) well-summed up the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons : The effect of so many voices singing with simple sincerity melody that was bone of their bone, composed specially for English women dwelling in the English countryside, by a composer who more than any other has steeped himself in our native traditions was extraordinarily moving.’