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A Fresh Look at English Folk Song Suite

Robert Garofalo | August 2013

    Published on the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death (Vaughan Williams died in 1958), the revised 2008 edition of the English Folk Song Suite is based on previously published editions rather than on the composer’s manuscript score, which is lost.
   An interpretation of the English Folk Song Suite should start with the source material that inspired and motivated its creator. The 1924 condensed score states that the work is founded on English folk songs collected by Lucy E. Broadwood, John A. Fuller Maitland, and Cecil J. Sharp:


The Tune “My Bonny Boy” is taken from “English County Songs” by kind permission of Miss L.E.Broadwood, J.A.Fuller-Maitland, Esq., and The Leadenhall Press. The Tunes of “Folk Songs from Somerset” are introduced by kind permission of Cecil Sharp, Esq.

    The folk songs appearing sequentially in the Suite by movement are:

I. March – “Seventeen Come Sunday”
“I’m Seventeen Come Sunday”
“Pretty Caroline”
”Dives and Lazarus”

II. Intermezzo – “My Bonny Boy”
“My Bonnie, Bonnie Boy”
“Green Bushes”

III. March – “Folk Songs from Somerset”
“Blow Away the Morning Dew”
“High Germany”
“Whistle, Daughter, Whistle”1
“John Barleycorn”

    Directors should study what has been written about the folk music and listen to available recordings. Additional clues to interpretation may be gleaned from an examination of the poetic song words. All nine folk songs in the Suite are in strophic form (the song is repeated with each stanza of text). Vaughan Williams is a master at combining diverse folk songs in one movement and highly skilled in varying the rhythms, harmony, dynamics, orchestration, texture, and style elements when a tune is repeated. Michael Kennedy, Vaughan Williams’s biographer, aptly described the composition this way: “The Suite of English Folk Songs makes no attempt to develop tunes or to rhapsodize upon them; it is merely a series of good tunes strung together with art and artifice.”2
    Vaughan Williams composed the work in 1923 for the Band of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall. Changes in military band instrumentation (recommended at a conference held at Kneller Hall on December 7, 1921) basically involved replacing Bb baritone horn with Bb tenor saxophone and adding parts for horns 3 and 4. Except for the inclusion of Bb trumpets and string bass, the original score would not have included alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets or baritone and bass saxophones as these instruments were not included in the Kneller Hall band at the time.
    When Boosey & Hawkes published a full score of the Folk Song Suite in the mid-1950s, the publisher included parts for all of the additional instruments listed above. The 2008 revised score edition of the Suite duplicates that instrumentation. What this means is that the English Folk Song Suite may be performed by a small band without the added low single reed instruments (these parts may be marked supplemental or ad lib), or by a fully instrumented large band as specified in the 2008 edition.

    Vaughan William’s masterful orchestration of the English Folk Song Suite is brilliant, lucid, and superbly befitting the folk melodies employed therein. Keep the following information in mind when preparing the piece for performance:
The score calls for one oboe, but the oboe part divides in several passages throughout the third movement. Additionally, there are markings elsewhere in the piece that indicate “solo” or “all.” At least two oboes are needed to perform the work. Mark the staff on first page of the score as “oboes.”
    The score calls for Eb clarinet (singular); however, the Eb clarinet part divides in several passages in the third movement. This should not be a serious problem because most of the second Eb clarinet notes are covered elsewhere in the movement. Furthermore, the editor of the 2008 score edition cued the 2nd Eb clarinet notes to 2nd flute in measures 23-24 and 63-64.
The solo & 1st Bb cornet part divides in the following places: Movement I, Coda (last three measures) and Movement III (measures 12-13, 53-54, and 103-105); hence, two players are needed to cover the part. The 2nd Bb cornet part divides only in Movement II (meas. 4-5). Because the solo & 1st Bb cornet part is marked “solo” here, the player who is resting could cover the harmony notes in the 2nd cornet part if there is only one player on 2nd cornet.
    In scoring the Folk Song Suite, Vaughan Williams clearly wrote for two Bb trumpets in addition to cornets. He considered the trumpet essential not only for its contrasting bright timbre, but also for its strength in reinforcing the cornets. The work should be performed with cornets and trumpets as indicated in the score. If cornets are not available, distribute the parts among the trumpet players and instruct them to try to darken their sounds by using a deeper cupped mouthpiece, a larger bored trumpet (if available), or playing slightly into the music stand.

I. March – “Seventeen Come Sunday.”
    The first movement of the English Folk Song Suite is in arch form (ABCBA). Although the folk tunes are ingeniously employed in this movement, the music is nonetheless a straightforward march; hence, the rhythm, spirit, and style of the march should be maintained throughout. Sing “Dives and Lazarus,” the folk song of the C section (beginning at measure 65) with its compound countermelody, to determine a comfortable tempo (q = ca.116) that will work for the entire movement.
After a simple, four-measure introduction, which is based on a melodic fragment of a perfect fifth (derived from the first tune), “I’m Seventeen Come Sunday” is stated the first time in the upper woodwinds in a light, delicate, pianissimo texture. The folk song is thirteen measures long and in F Dorian; it is robustly restated by the full band beginning in measure 18. Following the restatement, a two-measure transition from F Dorian to the relative key of Ab major leads to the next tune starting in measure 33. “Pretty Caroline,” a beautiful cantabile melody, is 32 measures long.
    The initial statement of this tune contains the first instance of solo passage doubling (clarinet and cornet), which is an apparent throwback to a time when bands playing outdoors had to reinforce the solo line for it to be heard. I resolve this issue by omitting the cornet doubling of the melody in measures 32-48. To counterbalance this solo adjustment, I recommend omitting the solo clarinet doubling of the melody in measures 60-63; this gives the solo clarinetist a bit of a rest in anticipation of the demanding countermelody that follows.
    At the conclusion of “Pretty Caroline,” a low brass and woodwind pronouncement of “Dives and Lazarus,” one of the composer’s favorite folk songs, begins. This section, starting at measure 65 is actually the Trio of the March. The F minor folk tune is accompanied by a freely composed countermelody similar to an Irish jig or reel in compound time. The overall effect of this music, with its polymetric hemiola construction, is magnificent. Using repeat signs with first and second endings, Vaughan Williams restates the 32 measure “Dives and Lazarus” folk tune. The composer not only modified the meters and rhythms of the three folk songs in this movement, he also adjusted the melodic pitches to suit his wonderful artistic sense. It is edifying to compare the melodies in this movement to the folk songs upon which they are based.
    Beginning at measure 98, Vaughan Williams returns to “Pretty Caroline,” which is very nearly a verbatim repeat of the first statement of this tune. At the end of this statement, a D.C. al Coda takes us back to the beginning of the March and a restatement of “I’m Seventeen Come Sunday,” including the introduction. The movement concludes with a dramatic plagal cadence from Bb minor with an added 6th to F major (Picardy third).
    The overall form and tonal scheme of the first movement of the English Folk Song Suite is superbly crafted and astonishingly beautiful. Vaughan Williams subtly modified the form of the march by restating the second folk song (“Pretty Caroline”) after the Trio tune (“Dives and Lazarus”). Typically, in a march, the Da Capo follows the Trio; thus, the first and second tunes would follow in sequence resulting in ternary form (ABA). By repeating the second tune immediately after the Trio, Vaughan Williams reversed the restatements of the first and second tunes thus creating a march in arch form.

II. Intermezzo – “My Bonny Boy.”
   Vaughan Williams subtitled this movement after the folk song heard at the beginning and end of the music. The second movement is in ternary (ABA) form, with a second, contrasting folk song titled “Green Bushes” employed between the two appearances of “My Bonnie, Bonnie Boy.”
    The Andantino tempo that begins the second movement should not be so slow or rigid that it hinders the flow of the music. A quarter note pulse of around 72 should work well when coupled with expressive dynamic nuances and subtle tempo adjustments (rubato). It is instructive to keep Lucy Broadwood’s tempo and stylistic markings (Andante e con dolore; also, molto ritardando and a tempo) in mind when interpreting “My Bonnie, Bonnie Boy.” As he had done in the first movement, Vaughan Williams uses the key signature of Ab in both of the A sections of the second movement which necessitated use of D natural (raised 6th scale degree) throughout to achieve the F Dorian tonality.
    Vaughan Williams immediately establishes F Dorian at the outset of Movement II with a sustained, two-measure F minor chord played softly by woodwinds and mellow brass. The sustained F Minor chord that begins movement two may require some attention to balance, tone quality, and motion. It may be desirable to start the music piano, or even mezzo piano, and follow with a diminuendo to pianissimo.
    Although Vaughan Williams’s adaptation of “My Bonnie, Bonnie Boy” closely models the folk song as published in Lucy E. Broadwood and J.A. Fuller Maitland’s English County Songs, there are subtle melodic adjustments. The first phrase of the folk song in the Suite, for example, is asymmetrical (seven measures instead of eight).
    The first statement of “My Bonnie, Bonnie Boy” presents a similar problem as that encountered in the first movement – two solo instruments (in this case, oboe and cornet) doubling the melody. The dolore expression of this mournful song seems to suggest the plaintive sound of solo oboe. If a skilled oboe player is available instruct the oboist to play the first statement of “My Bonnie, Bonnie Boy” alone, with the solo cornet resting from measures 2 through 15 only. The solo clarinetist performing the transitional passage (40-42) linking section A to B should be given some expressive freedom; a poco ritenuto in measure 42 would serve nicely to set up the Poco Allegro (Scherzando) that follows.
    Although the 3/4 meter remains the same over the double bar at measure 43 from “My Bonnie, Bonnie Boy” to “Green Bushes,” the musical feel, style, pulse, and expression change greatly. For the most part, “Green Bushes” should be conducted one beat per bar using a light staccato beat style (h. = 54). To set this up, begin section B with a small, light, melded gestures of three (q = 160) before transitioning to one beat per bar a few measures into the section.
    Vaughan Williams used the key signature of F major in the middle section of the movement which allows for the wonderful vacillation between F Mixolydian and F Dorian modes. “Green Bushes” has been sung and noted in both modes, which differ only on the third scale degree; and this setting of “Green Bushes” is, I believe, a reflection of that.

    There is tonal ambiguity at the outset of section B because the third degree of the modes does not appear until well into the first phrase (Ab does not appear until measure 49; An until measure 58). The pitch changes in the melody in measures 45, 53, and 57 to avoid the note A altogether, thus allowing for the modal ambiguity.
    Note that the first statement of “Green Bushes” (measures 43-58) is scored in three octaves for solo piccolo, Eb clarinet, and oboe. If there is no Eb clarinet, a solo flute may be substituted by having the flutist read the same part as the piccolo.
    The ritardando at measure 76 seems to come a bit too late in the section, resulting in a molto ritardando. To avoid this situation it may be necessary to begin the ritardando a measure or two sooner.
    Vaughan Williams harmonizes the third and final statement of “My Bonnie, Bonny Boy” with mostly second inversion triads. Using augmentation to slow down the music, the composer concludes the movement with another unusual final chord cadence ending with a Picardy third (C minor 7 to F major).

III. March – “Folk Songs from Somerset”
    The last movement of the English Folk Song Suite introduces four splendid folk songs collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset, England, between 1903 and 1906. The songs are imaginatively sequenced in ternary march form (ABA).
    The first section of the march introduces two folk tunes and has a ternary subform. The march begins with a four-measure introduction (in Bb), which is based on a melodic fragment of the first folk song, specifically the phrase appearing in measures 17-20. Vaughan Williams extended the symmetry of “Blow Away the Morning Dew” by restating and fully orchestrating the second half of the tune which results in this phrase structure: a (8) b (8) b (8) = 24. For the most part, the basic tonalities and rhythms of both folk songs of section A are maintained, although the actual keys, meters, and rhythms are not.
    The B section of the march, marked Trio in the score at measure 71, introduces the final two folk songs and has a binary subform. A sweeping, four-measure transition with meter change, modulation, and introduction (69-72) connects section A to B.
    Although this march is marked Allegro, the same as the first movement, a slightly brighter tempo of a quarter = ca.120-126 is recommended. This upbeat tempo works well with all of the folk tunes in the movement, especially “Whistle, Daughter, Whistle,” which is in compound time. During this section be sure to bring out the lovely trumpet countermelody in measures 81-84; mark the score and parts en dehors and mezzo piano. Following a repeat of the Trio section there is a Da Capo al Fine.
    A peculiar performance practice has evolved with regard to slowing down or speeding up the ending of the English Folk Song Suite. How this came about is a matter of speculation; however, it appears that the slowing of the tempo developed from the marking “rall. (2nd time)” which appears in the last two measures of the 1924 condensed score and not in any other published score (band or orchestra). Frederick Fennell, in his pioneering article “Vaughan Williams’s Folk Song Suite,3 concluded his interpretive comments with this statement, which received the composer’s blessing.


“I have always felt that making a well-paced ritenuto in these final four bars is a valid interpretive license. I was privileged to attend most of the series of lectures Vaughan Williams gave at Cornell University in November, 1954, and on one occasion I took along this score to discuss with him. When I asked what he thought of this interpretive change, he said: ‘I like it – use it.’”


Sir Adrian Boult, in his London Symphony Orchestra recording of Jacob’s orchestral arrangement of the English Folk Song Suite confounds the discussion by speeding up in the last four measures of the piece. Boult conducted many of Vaughan Williams’s compositions during the composer’s lifetime; he is an authority on the performance and interpretation of Vaughan Williams’s music. Conductors of the English Folk Song Suite are free to adjust the ending tempo any way that seems appropriate or not adjust it at all.
    To enhance the performance of the work, consider adding unison singing by male, female, or mixed voices to any or all of the folk songs in the third movement. Vaughan Williams made only minimal modifications to the folk songs used, so very few pitch or rhythm adjustments are necessary. Singers may need to be amplified to achieve balance when performing with band.
    Here are performance suggestions with regard to tessitura (voice ranges) and song words (verses) that are applicable to “Blow Away the Morning Dew” the first folk song appearing in the last movement of the Folk Song Suite.4

    “Blow Away the Morning Dew” occurs twice in the first section of the movement and reoccurs with the Da Capo repeat of this section. Remember that Vaughan Williams repeats the refrain of the folk song each time that it is stated; this necessitates repeating the second verse of the song each time that it is sung. I recommend that the song be performed each time it occurs with female voices on the verse and first refrain with the male voices joining in for the restatement of the refrain. This corresponds with the tutti scoring of the repeat of the second phrase. Sing verses one and two with the two statements of the folk song in the first section; and repeat the same two verses on the Da Capo. Incorporating singing of “Blow Away the Morning Dew” in the concert performance of the English Folk Song Suite as suggested above will surely bring this enduring wind band masterwork to a spectacular conclusion.  

1 This folk song has been misidentified by most authorities for a very long time as “The tree so high” or moniker variant thereof. For information about the misnomer and the discovery of “Whistle, Daughter, Whistle” as the correct tune in the Trio section of the third movement, see Chapter 3 of Folk Songs in the English Folk Song Suite by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
2 Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford University Press, p. 178.
3 The Instrumentalist (June, 1976), Vol. 30, No. 11, pp. 19-22. Reprinted in Basic Band Repertory: British Band Classics from the Conductor’s Point of View by Frederick Fennell. The Instrumentalist Co., 1980.
4 Performance suggestions for including singing of the other folk songs in the last movement of the Suite are given in Chapter 2 of Folk Songs in the English Folk Song Suite by Ralph Vaughan Williams.