10 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (21): Three Preludes
Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes, 2, ‘Rhosymedre’

The chapel of Trinity College Cambridge … the three organ preludes are a tribute by Vaughan Williams to the organist Alan Gray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For these three mornings [Monday to Wednesday], I am listening to his Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes, and this morning [10 March 2015] I continue as I listen to the second of these preludes, ‘Rhosymedre.’

These three organ solos are based on Welsh tunes, which Vaughan Williams had already arranged for hymns in the English Hymnal, which he edited with Canon Percy Dearmer.

Vaughan Williams’s father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, came from a family of Welsh origins that had distinguished itself in the law.

The composer first published these organ preludes in 1920 and dedicated them to Alan Gray (1855-1935), who was the organist of Trinity College Cambridge (1892-1930) when Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate there.

Vaughan Williams studied the organ under Gray at Trinity, and with Gray’s patient help he passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO) in 1898, and received his Doctorate in Music (MusD) at Cambridge the following year. These three organ preludes are Vaughan Williams’s tribute as a grateful student to Alan Gray.

The second of these preludes, ‘Rhosymedre,’ is based on the tune of that name by the Welsh Anglican priest, the Revd John David Edwards (1805-1895). That tune was harmonised by Vaughan Williams for Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Author of Love Divine’ in the English Hymnal (No 303; see New English Hymnal, No 274).

Edwards was born in Ceredigion (Cardiganshire) in Wales, and studied at Jesus College, Oxford, before his ordination. In 1843, he became the Vicar of Rhosymedre, near Wrexham in north Wales, and remained until he died in 1895.

He composed many hymns tunes, and his collection Original Sacred Music (1836) was the first book of hymn-tunes for Anglican churches in Wales. A second collection was published in 1843.

Edwards named the tune Rhosymedre after the village where he was vicar for over half a century, although it is also known as ‘Lovely.’ The hymn tune is seven lines long, with a metrical index of The tune was used by Vaughan Williams as the basis of the second movement of his organ composition ‘Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes.’ Vaughan Williams’s Choral Prelude based on this Welsh tune was played on the organ at the Church Musical Festival in the Crystal Palace, London, on 21 July 1933.

Here, as with so many of his arrangements of folk music, Vaughan Williams turns an apparently simple tune into a work of great beauty and with profound emotional impact.

This prelude is probably best known as an orchestral arrangement by Arnold Foster published in 1938. It has also been arranged for other instruments and combinations of instruments, including solo piano, piano duet and four recorders.

In 2008, to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Vaughan Williams, Richard Morrison arranged the piece for string quartet and solo tenor.

In Wales, the original tune by Edwards is associated with Easter and is thought of as a jubilant hymn tune. Outside Wales, however, it often receives a more devotional treatment, and so it Vaughan William’s prelude provides an appropriate meditation on this early morning in Lent.