Ralph Vaughan Williams: English Folk Song Suite


As well as appreciating British landscapes and heritage, Ralph Vaughan Williams was also sentimental about Britain’s musical history. Military bands were on the rise again, and thus in 1923, Vaughan Williams composed his English Folk Song Suite for them. Although popular in most wind orchestras, it’s the fully orchestrated version by Gordon Jacob that we mainly hear in concert halls today (please note this blog will be exploring the orchestral version of this work).

The original military band version was published under the title Folk Song Suite, and was premiered on 4th July 1923 at Kneller Hall. 1924 saw Vaughan Williams’ student Gordon Jacob assemble the orchestral version, which was published under the title English Folk Song Suite. In 1956, Frank Wright published a version for brass band under the title English Folk Songs Suite. All three versions were published by Boosey & Hawkes. Although all published under slightly differing names, the music remains consistent throughout. 

Consisting of three movements, each of which are based on a main folk tune, each movement explores some of the most quintessential British folk tunes of the time. In Vaughan Williams’ original score there was a fourth movement called Sea Songs, which was performed as the second movement, however this was removed after the premiere performance. 

Vaughan Williams then worked on the discarded movement and published it as a stand alone piece some years later.


The Music
I. March: Seventeen Come Sunday

The opening movement is based on the folk song Seventeen Come Sunday, which is first heard by the woodwinds and strings. The irregular phrasing of this melody adds to the syncopated quirkiness of the march. As the music quickly comes down the melody of Seventeen Come Sunday is followed by Pretty Caroline, which is led by a solo clarinet. 

A third folk tune, Dives and Lazarus is then played by the lower instruments as a countermelody to the fluttering top half of the ensemble. What makes this particular section so exciting is that Vaughan Williams writes the Dives and Lazarus countermelody in 6/8 rhythms, with the upper orchestra playing straight 2/4 rhythms. The sense of uneasiness is soon relieved as the reprise begins. 

The opening movement ends with a whole-ensemble short notes before a long note is held across the orchestra. 


II. Intermezzo: My Bonny Boy

Based on the melody of My Bonny Boy, the slow and mysterious second movement is opened with a solo oboe. The haunting melody is set in the F dorian mode, which accentuates the folk roots in the music. The melody is then repeated by the lower orchestra as the upper strings accompany with a sweet and shimmering countermelody. 

As the orchestra build and swell in sound together, a solo violin leads the music into the Poco allegro section. Based on the theme of Green Bushes, this waltz section relieves a lot of the tension that was felt at the beginning of the movement. The sweetness of the upper winds adds to this effect and the jollity seeps through the ensemble. 

The first melody of My Bonny Boy is played once more, this time in a much more fragmented manner. The mysterious atmosphere quickly descends through the orchestra once more, and the music is drawn to a quiet close.


III. March: Folk Songs from Somerset

Opening with a catchy introduction based on the folk song Blow Away the Morning Dew, the clarinet (or cornet) takes the solo line. The melody is passed around the orchestra and repeated four times. The second melody, based on High Germany, is led by the lower instruments , with the trumpets adding a sparkling fanfare on top. 

As the orchestra climax for the first time in this movement, the music quickly dies away and the opening melody is heard once again. A change in both key and time takes the orchestra into the trio section. Based on the melody Whistle, Daughter, Whistle, the light trio section makes for a welcome change from the brash opening two folk songs. 

The final melody is based on John Barleycorn, and is the heaviest of all the melodies in this movement. The trombones and basses lead the way in this section before the trumpets and cornets play a decorative melody above. The movement ends with a reprise of the opening material before a final big chord is played from the whole orchestra.


Final Thoughts

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite is full of quintessential British folk songs that take you on a whirlwind of different stories and emotions. From the sparkling opening of Seventeen on Sunday, to the dulcet tones of My Bonny Boy, the whole suite is a true cultural delight. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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