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The Preservation of Folksongs

It’s hard to believe that St. Martin’s Chamber Choir’s 20th Anniversary Season is already half over! Our next set of concerts, our fourth (out of six) is called, in keeping with the “Echoes” theme of our anniversary season, Celtic Echoes: British Folksongs and Partsongs.

Portrait of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams by William Rothenstein
Portrait of Ralph Vaughan Williams by William Rothenstein

As the 20th century dawned, great technological changes were creating vast transformations in society. The influx of rural populations into cities, greater mobility of the populace via road and rail, and the growing prominence of national (as opposed to local) media, were threatening the existence of folk art, which had been handed down from generation to generation largely by way of oral tradition, the demise of which was obvious given the above factors. Many artists in Britain realized that the vast repository of British folksong was threatened – that tens of thousands of tunes and lyrics would pass completely out of human memory if they were not recorded or written down. A great many musicians, therefore – RVW, Gustav Holst, Cecil Sharp, R. O. Morris, E. J. Moeran, among them – ventured into the countryside with pencil and staff paper (or phonographic recording devices in some cases), and encouraged the rural folk to sing them their songs. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of folksongs were thus preserved, and composers began to use these as the inspiration for choral and other vocal arrangements.

That’s the focus of this concert – the echoes of Celtic culture that remained in these folksongs and their skillful arrangements – arrangements by the likes of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Peter Warlock, George Dyson, Granville Bantock, and Henry Ley; as well as a few choral works (called partsongs) that, while not being actual arrangements of folksongs, clearly demonstrate the link between the British choral tradition and its folksong antecedents – partsongs such as Stanford’s “The Blue Bird,” Pearsall’s “Lay a Garland,” and Vaughan Williams’ “Linden Lea.”