Vaughan Williams: English Folk Song Suite

This ever-popular set of quintessentially English tunes first appeared in 1923, written at the request of the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall.  The suite as you will hear it this evening is a transcription from military band to orchestral score made the following year by Vaughan Williams’ pupil Gordon Jacob, but not published until 1942.  After the first performance, the Morning Post reviewer had this to say:
It is a beautifully scored work, written around folk and other song tunes, equally pleasing the connoisseur, and the elderly lady who does not allow music to interfere with her knitting.
I shall pass over that without comment. . .

In the few years after 1903, Vaughan Williams seems to have spent every free moment out ‘on the road’, collecting folk songs from their usually elderly rustic singers – to put it bluntly, it was a race against time to preserve the songs, most of which had never been written down, before the singers passed away.  He covered more or less the whole country by bicycle and train, amassing over 800 songs.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the words of the songs were of secondary importance to Vaughan Williams:  it was the beautiful and plaintive tunes with their unusual modal scales and cadences which fired his imagination, and which were the mechanism that released his true musical personality and ultimately, in concert with other influences such as Tudor polyphony and continental modernism, his creative genius.

When therefore we approach a Vaughan Williams piece, even a relatively light work, explicitly based on folk melodies as this Suite is, we can be sure that it is “the genuine article”, the genre completely understood and respected, and the arrangements unerringly “right”.

There are three movements, with these general titles:
1.    March – “Seventeen Come Sunday”
2.    Intermezzo – “My Bonny Boy”
3.    March – “Folk Songs From Somerset”

It is not only the third movement that contains more than one song-tune:  the first two also have several tunes strung together.  It is worth noticing that they are strung together, rather than interwoven:  except towards the very end, one tune simply ends, and the next follows.

The opening movement actually features three songs:  I’m Seventeen Come Sunday, Pretty Caroline, and Dives and Lazarus, the last a lifelong favourite of Vaughan Williams’, and the subject of his 1939 Five Variants.  Moments to notice include the brief two-bar bridge changing the key and connecting the first tune to the second, the gentle Pretty Caroline, and the very last chord, which is what is called a Picardy Third, where a piece of music in a minor key ends in a surprisingly positive major.

A chilling minor chord  introduces the slow Intermezzo, which uses the tunes from two tragic songs dealing with the betrayal of love, My Bonny Boy and Green Bushes, though the second sounds to me more like a variant of The Cutty Wren.  The writing, particularly in the lower instruments, as the movement builds to a close, has the dark majesty of some of Vaughan Williams’ greatest works, and there is an even more striking Picardy Third to finish.

The final march movement contains four songs collected in Somerset:  Blow Away The Morning Dew, High Germany, The Trees They Do Grow High, and John Barleycorn.  The mood is brisk and cheerful and very military band-ish, though the subject matter of a couple of the songs could not be more melancholy.  There is a masterly handling of colours, register, and dynamic contrast, before a repeat of the first tune brings proceedings to an abrupt and good-humoured end.

Curiously, Vaughan Williams seems mainly to have decided to use versions of the tunes as noted by the folk song collecting pioneer Cecil Sharp, rather than his own.  I suspect this may have something to do with his notoriously indecipherable writing and music-notation:  there are examples of all the songs in the British Library, but I cannot read much of what he wrote and, very often, neither could he!

Barry Fogden