Vaughan Williams and Christmas music

During a recent rehearsal of the Nottingham Bach Choir, I blithely (and probably blasphemously) said “of course, the true meaning of Christmas is Ralph Vaughan Williams”. Ludicrous nonsense of course but I was trying to make the point that for me the music of Vaughan Williams is an absolutely essential part of the soundtrack to Christmas. I think it is fair to say that of all the English composers and arrangers whose music is performed regularly around Christmas time (Willcocks, Rutter, Britten, Warlock, to name but a few) it is Vaughan Williams’s contribution that is most telling and it is his music which most convincingly embodies the spirit of an English Choral Christmas.

There are many reasons for this but two stand out in particular. The first reason is quite prosaic but the second is rather profound and a brief exploration of that might help us to understand the nature of English choral Christmas music and, perhaps, English choral music in general.

The prosaic reason is that Vaughan Williams was a contributing composer and arranger for two of the most ubiquitous and influential collections of printed Christmas music: Carols for Choirs (now know as Carols for Choirs 1 to distinguish it from its inevitably inferior successors or simply - and affectionately - "the Green Book") and the Oxford Book of Carols. Of the latter he was also an editor. As a result, a healthy proportion of his Christmas music is already in the libraries and, therefore, the repertoire of virtually every choir in the English-speaking world.

The profound reason has to do with Vaughan Williams’ chief compositional influence; British folk song. At a time when composers all over Europe were trying to escape a perceived Teutonic cultural hegemony by establishing Nationalist schools of composition (in other words, trying to create a sound world in their music which was particular to their country and not sounding like the German and Austrian composers who had dominated European music for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), Vaughan William felt that the future of British music lay in its past, in its folk music.

Vaughan Williams, along with Cecil Sharp and others, had, with great prescience, collected and notated many folk songs and carols from around Britain in order to preserve and protect the fruits of an oral traditions which would surely die out in the twentieth century as printed music became cheaper and the wireless and gramophone began to become widely available. He then published them, occasionally fancily arranged but usually presented fairly plainly so that their simple eloquence could shine through.

It is this simple eloquence which is the basis of all of Vaughan Williams vocal music and, I would argue, the basis of all twentieth century English vocal music. Vaughan Williams and his followers were so steeped in the sound of folk music that even their own original compositions have a similar flavour. The music seems to merely be a vehicle for the text which is allowed to proceed to its own natural rhythms without being strangled or suffocated by contrived musical artifice. The carol is an inherently artless form, a song of the people with profane roots. I think this is what we want at Christmas and even Vaughan Williams’ most elaborate Christmas music has a spontaneous and communal feeling, almost as if everyone could join in at any time.

Perhaps more importantly, the archaic feeling of his Christmas music evokes a sense of nostalgia, taking us back to a, perhaps mythical, time when Christmas was better. At Vaughan Williams’ Christmas it is always snowing, people pass from house to house carolling and wassailing and there is universal peace and goodwill.

Philip Collin

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Last revised 25th December 2005