Philip Lane (b. 1950) can always be relied upon to come up with some spirited music for any occasion. In this case these three Wassail Dances provide appropriately seasonal fare. They were composed early on in his career in 1973. They were written specifically for the Gloucestershire Youth Orchestra and their then conductor Tony Hewitt-Jones who gave the premiere in 1973. I was unable to find an exact date and venue.
‘Wassail’ is an ancient toast meaning something like ‘Good health!’ to mankind and livestock. Mulled cider and beer was drunk as part of these festivities, often held on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. The tradition of Wassailing is still observed in parts of England to this day. However, it has been largely superseded by Carolling.
As the work's title suggests, these Wassail Dances are based on old drinking songs once popular in the counties of Somerset, Yorkshire and Gloucestershire. The composer has explained that all three dances ‘take their theme and stretch it to its rhythmic and harmonic limits, within given parameters.’
The opening ‘vivace’ is ‘bucolic’ in mood and relies heavily on colourful orchestration for its jovial effect. It is based on the Somerset Wassail:
Wassail and wassail all over the town
The cup it is white and the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the malt of the best barley
For its your wassail and its our wassail
And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail
The tune is likely to have been derived from the New Oxford Book of Carols, no.158.
Strangely, the middle movement, an ‘andantino’, is defined by a certain hardness of tone that ‘reflects the harsh landscape of its northern origins.’ The tune used here is ‘Here we come a Wassailing’. It is alleged that both the words and the original tune were devised, collected or composed around 1850.
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 finale (vivace) is a lively, boisterous piece that is put through some imaginative twists and turns. It is probably based on the Gloucestershire Wassail:
Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.
Once again, the orchestration is particularly impressive with brass (muted and unmuted) and vast amounts of percussion adding to the effect. It was later reworked as the fifth number of the composer’s Cotswold Dances.
The Wassail Dances received their first broadcast performance on 11 December 1985 during BBC Radio 3 during a concert played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Ashley Lawrence. The Matinee Musicale also included Engelbert Humperdinck’s Overture: Hansel and Gretel, Tchaikovsky’s Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty and arranged for chamber orchestra by Igor Stravinsky, Matyas Seiber’s Pastorale, a Sonata in C major for flute and piano by Gaetano Donizetti and finally, Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture: The Fair Melusine, op. 32. The flautist was Judith Hall.
Some 17 years later the Wassail Dances were recorded on the Naxos record label (8.557099) played by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. Other works on this album included Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, Bryan Kelly’s Improvisation on Christmas Carols and Patrick Standford’s A Christmas Carol Symphony.
Unfortunately, the Wassail Dances have not been uploaded to YouTube. However, they can be heard on Spotify or the Naxos Music Library (accounts needed), They are well worth exploring.
Philip Lane was born in Cheltenham in 1950 which is at the north-western corner of the Cotswolds. Lane’s musical achievement is considerable; however, he is probably best known for his ‘light’ music and his major contribution to the reconstruction of lost film-scores.