Ralph Vaughan Williams Newfoundland Folksong Arrangements: A Reappraisal

Glenn Colton


In September 1929, Maud Karpeles of the English Folk Song and Dance Society embarked upon the first of two pioneering folk song collecting expeditions in rural Newfoundland. Less than one year later, with guidance from Newfoundland musician and folklore enthusiast Frederick Emerson, more than 200 traditional melodies sung by over 100 singers had been notated in one of the earliest large-scale efforts to document the richness of the islands folk music heritage. Included among the many songs collected was the haunting love lament Shes Like the Swallow, of which Karpeles later remarked that my life would have been worthwhile if collecting that was all that I had done.
Vaughan Williams, a long-time friend of Karpeles and a kindred spirit in the English folk music renaissance, was asked to arrange 11 of the collected songs for voice and piano. The resulting two-volume set (with further arrangements by Hubert J. Foss, Clive Carey, and Michael Mullinar) was published by Oxford University Press in 1934 and dedicated to Emerson and his wife, Isabel. Vaughan Williams arrangements included versions of the ballads Sweet Williams Ghost, The Cruel Mother, The Gypsy Laddie, The Bloody Gardener, The Bonny Banks of Virgie-O, Earl Brand, Lord Bateman, and The Lovers Ghost, and the songs The Maidens Lament, Proud Nancy, The Morning Dew, Shes Like the Swallow, Young Florio, and The Winters Gone and Past. It was largely through Vaughan Williams settings that the songs were popularized in Europe (the United Kingdom, in particular). Yet despite this, and despite the fact that his was the first of many arrangements of the iconic Shes Like the Swallow, the Newfoundland folk song arrangements are scarcely mentioned in existing studies of Vaughan Williams life and music.
This presentation re-examines Vaughan Williams Newfoundland folk song arrangements with special emphasis on how the timeless beauty of traditional melodies and texts inspired the composer to write arrangements of remarkable depth and imagination. Despite Vaughan Williams modest claims to the contrary, these arrangements are not merely piano accompaniments, but rather creative adaptations in which newly composed counter melodies, detailed attention to textual nuances, and expressive harmonies forge a compelling blend of traditional music and compositional craft. The presentation will include live performances of selected songs from the set by Patricia Colton (mezzo-soprano) and Glenn Colton (piano).

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