Christmas with Ralph Vaughan Williams

The choral repertoire of Christmas music owes a debt to Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). In our own parish, we often sing “O little town of Bethlehem” to the tune FOREST GREEN, one of many folk tunes that Vaughan Williams adapted for use in the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal (read the whole story of that project here).

Choir of the Queen’s College, Oxford; Owen Rees, conductor

In 1912, after Vaughan Williams had completed a period of research for the Folk-Song Society and the editing of The English Hymnal, he composed his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a work for baritone soloist, choir, and orchestra. His engagement with traditional tunes and texts for Christmas is quite evident in this pastiche of now-familiar carols.

Stephen Roberts, baritone; The London Symphony Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox.

In 1928, the first edition of The Oxford Book of Carols was published. Vaughan Williams was one of the editors, along with Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw (both of whose names are also present in our Hymnal). The book documented the text and music of about 200 carols, many of them from medieval and later pre-modern sources. That volume went through many printings and was updated with new editors as The New Oxford Book of Carols in 1992.

Both editions have served as a standard reference tool for choir conductors and for composers and arrangers. If you attend or tune into a Christmas choral concert or a Lessons and Carols service, you will almost certainly hear the influence of the work that Vaughan Williams and his colleagues performed in compiling The Oxford Book of Carols.

Much later, near the end of his life, Vaughan Williams composed a larger and longer piece for Christmas. Dedicated to composer Herbert Howells, Hodie (“This day”) was premiered in 1954. It is scored for chorus, boys’ choir, organ, orchestra, and solo parts for tenor, baritone, and soprano.

The libretto is an assemblage of texts from the Bible, traditional carols, and poets John Milton, Thomas Hardy, George Herbert, William Drummond, Ursula Vaughn Williams (the composer’s wife), and a Miles Coverdale translation of a Christmas poem by Martin Luther. (The Wikipedia article on this piece presents the entire libretto with notes about the sources.)

Hodie was recorded in 1965 with an all-star ensemble. The soloists were Dame Janet Baker, Richard Lewis, and John Shirley-Quirk (at the time very big names), with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Bach Choir, Choristers of Westminster Abbey, all conducted by Sir David Willcocks.

Here are the two opening movements from that recording (which is still available for purchase); the text (after the opening repitition of the festive “Hodie”) is the traditional Antiphon to the Magnificat sung on the vespers on Christmas Day (presented below the embedded video).

Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!
Hodie Christus natus est: hodie salvator apparuit:
Today Christ is born: Today the Saviour appeared:
Hodie in terra canunt angeli, laetantur archangeli:
Today on Earth the Angels sing, Archangels rejoice:
Hodie exultant justi, dicentes: gloria in excelsis Deo: Alleluia.
Today the righteous rejoice, saying: Glory to God in the highest: Alleluia.

In 1990, a worthy successor to the Willcocks version was released. It featured Richard Hickox conducting the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra and the Choristers of St. Paul Cathedral, along with soloists Elizabeth Gale, Robert Tear, and Stephen Roberts.

On the second Sunday after Christmas (January 2, 2020), our choir will sing one of the choruses from Hodie. Here is The Blessed Son of God as performed by Hickox and company. The text is Martin Luther’s, as translated by Miles Coverdale.

Until you obtain your own copy of Hodie, and can listen in full fidelity, here is a complete performance by the Guildford Choral Society, St. Catherine’s School Middle Chamber Choir, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Hilary Davan Wetton. The soloists are soprano Janice Watson, tenor Peter Hoare, and baritone Stephen Gadd. Merry Christmas!