Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Newfoundland Folksong Arrangements: A Reappraisal
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 William’s Ghost,” “The Cruel Mother,” “The Gypsy Laddie,” “The Bloody Gardener,” “The Bonny Banks of Virgie-O,” “Earl Brand,” “Lord Bateman,” and “The Lover’s Ghost,” and the songs “The Maiden’s Lament,” “Proud Nancy,” “The Morning Dew,” “She’s Like the Swallow,” “Young Florio,” and “The Winter’s 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 “She’s 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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