A review by Essex based musician Ed Caines written for the RVW Society in November 2021
This is an excellent new recording of Vaughan Williams’s own arrangements of folk songs, most of which he had also collected, and few of which have ever been recorded before in his own settings. It is perhaps surprising that such a major British composer has music still unrecorded over 60 years after his death, but perhaps these arrangements were written more for domestic and small-scale music-making, along with school song books and the folk-tunes employed in his English Hymnal, to spread English folk song, giving it back to the people. If not secondary to the employment of specific folk tunes and their distilled idiom in the creation of Vaughan Williams’s better known orchestral music, it was a different project. It is good to see this omission being rectified but, at this time, also difficult to imagine what audience there is for such music. Today’s classical music listeners may be less interested in arrangements of folk song; and lovers of folk song may well be put off by the classical style of both playing and singing here. This is great a pity, and I would encourage both groups to at least give this excellent music a chance. Although modern Folk audiences may be used to unaccompanied singing, or more often accompaniments using “folk” instruments and vernacular singing, in an informal style, it is more likely that Vaughan Williams’s informants would have heard a piano than a guitar, and, while they might have spoken in their own rural dialect, would have been familiar with the “King’s English”, if only spoken by their clergymen and employers, and may have found these recordings no more alien than the folk-revival interpretations we may like to think of as authentic. Vaughan Williams himself agreed that the ideal way to sing the songs was unaccompanied and quoted the Dorset country singer who said, “It’s very nice for him to have the piano when he’s singing, but it does make it very difficult for the listener”. However, the performers and production team here have given traditional music the same respect and quality of performance as they would any classical repertoire and the result repays repeated listening.
The story of the music in this recording began in 1903, when Vaughan Williams had come to a school in Brentwood, Essex to give a lecture on folk song. This led to an invitation from the daughter of the rector of St Nicholas’s Church at nearby Ingrave to hear some villagers singing their songs and a meeting with the first singer he was to personally collect from, Charles Pottiphar. Hearing Pottiphar’s song, the evocative “Bushes and Briars” starting the CD unaccompanied, helps us understand how this moved Vaughan Williams and set him on a path to collect 800 more folk songs and create his distinctly “English” musical style.
There are 20 songs here; 15 from “Songs of the Eastern Counties”, 3 from the later “Penguin Book of English Folk Songs”, 2 from the 1919 “Motherland Songbook”, interposed with a solo piano track of “Twelve Traditional Country Dances”. The tunes were expertly taken down by ear by Vaughan Williams and others, working quickly and without recording equipment, but with great care that the melodies were noted exactly as sung. No such reverence unfortunately, was shown for the words which were often edited or taken from broadsheet versions of the same song.
The performers here are all notable musicians and the singers expertly use clear diction and vocal power to tell the stories the songs contain, employing accents for characterization and effect. The piano expertly ranges from light chords punctuating the rhythm to almost rhapsodic passages which counterpoint the singer while emphasizing the emotion of the song. One reason for Edwardian composers’ particular interest in English folk song was, at a time when Britannia might well have ruled the waves (half the songs here have a nautical connection) her music still held little sway in the concert hall. Their mission was to create a distinctly English style of music based on folk song as Germany and other countries had done with theirs. With their sheer emotional power, beautiful melodies and original accompaniments, it could be argued that Vaughan Williams has gone some way to achieve his and that the best of these songs certainly compare not unfavourably with feted German Lieder.
This recording comes with a 37-page booklet with words to all the songs, detailed and well-researched notes from John Francis, and pictures of old and new singers and, not least, Vaughan Williams’s own words from “Songs of the Eastern Counties”;
“These songs are respectfully dedicated to those who first sang them to me”.
The songs from this collection are splendid examples of the genre but maybe less often performed within current folk revival repertoires. Vaughan Williams had scoured workhouses, inns and farm cottages across East Anglia to find genuine songs of the working people; telling of their amazing hardships, from maltreated apprentices, cruel punishments, their fight for survival on sea and land, to their loves and losses which were as much part of their lives as they are part of these songs. This collection is a treasury of some of the finest English folk songs which certainly deserve to be sung again and forms a potentially useful source for any contemporary revival singer.
Particular examples of good stories well-told are Nicky Spence’s “On board a Ninety-Eight” and “The Lincolnshire Farmer”, and Roderick Williams’s powerful “The Saucy Bold Robber”. The evocative essence of modal folk song which was particularly employed by Vaughan Williams in his own compositions is evident in Roderick Williams’s beautiful “Bushes and Briars” and plaintive “The Sheffield Apprentice”
The eight “Folk Songs of the Easter Counties” are followed by “Twelve Traditional Country Dances’ expertly played by William Vann. It sounds rather Jane Austen to hear music for country dancing played entirely on piano now and, with the tunes in succession played just twice through, rather than, as Vaughan Williams intended, for dancing and as many times through as needed, give the impression of a baroque suite. After this are three songs from Vaughan Williams collaboration with A. L. Lloyd, the seminal “Penguin Book of English Folk Songs”. By 1959 the second folk revival had begun, bringing with it folk clubs, guitars and even unaccompanied singing. Unlike the earlier publications this book just had words and melodies for the songs although crediting the original singer’s names and the modes the tunes were in. Vaughan Williams did however offer three examples of how they might be accompanied, simpler than before but effective, which have been used here.
The CD finishes with two rousing “non-folk” songs, included as they were also arranged by Vaughan Williams, for the patriotically title “Motherland Song Book” of 1919. Curious, how a year after a war against Germany these two songs mocking our French allies were selected for publication. A song for our times or not perhaps. While performed equally as well as the others, these songs, with their nuance of Gilbert and Sullivan, cannot compare with what has gone before, although the “The Arethusa” does lend a stirring Last Night of the Proms feel to the finish. Perhaps this makes Vaughan Williams’s point about the inherent quality of English, or any folk song.
Ed lives in Brentwood and near Ingrave where Bushes and Briars was collected (in fact, he drives through the village every day on his way to work!), and has played English music, in folk clubs and for dancing for various bands for more than 40 years, currently with Suffolk-based Proper English. Ed also finds time to listen to and play classical music.
Ed has kindly written this review for the RVW Society on behalf of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust. November 2021
The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society was founded in 1994. Next year is RVW 150 celebrating 150 years since his birth and plans are afoot across the country and beyond to celebrate his life and musical contribution. There are plans across the Eastern Counties and we will aim to keep you updated on anything related to his folk song collecting in the region.