24 December 2015

Christmas with Vaughan Williams
(1): ‘Fantasia on Christmas Carols’

‘The Nativity,’ by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas arrives this evening [24 December], and my Advent reflections on Dietrich Bonhoeffer have come to end. Between this Christmas Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany [6 January 2016], I am listening to appropriate Christmas music by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

This evening, I am listening to his Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Then, from tomorrow [25 December 2015] and over the Christmas season, I am inviting you to join me each day in a series of Christmas meditations as I listen to Vaughan Williams’s Christmas Cantata Hodie (‘This Day’), his of musical styles set to poetry from most diverse sources, including John Milton, Thomas Hardy and George Herbert.

Vaughan Williams had a passion for Christmas that was nourished at an early age by his love of Christmas carols and by his childhood memories of singing them at his home in Leith Hill Place, Surrey, from Stainer and Bramley’s Christmas Carols New and Old (1867, 1878).

As an adult, his work with carols blossomed the founding of the English Folk Song Society and he began collecting them in the early 20th century in Essex, Surrey, Sussex, Somerset, Worcester and Hereford and other parts of England.

The tunes he collected were first published in the English Hymnal (1906), which he co-edited with Percy Dearmer, and later in the Oxford Book of Carols (1928).

Vaughan Williams wrote his Fantasia on Christmas Carols for the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford Cathedral in 1912. It was the first of several works inspired by the Christmas theme, including the masque On Christmas Night (1926) based on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, his great cantata Hodie (1953-1954), and the Nativity play The First Nowell (1958).

This Fantasia is written for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. It is a single movement lasting about 12 minutes and consists of three English folk carols, ‘The truth sent from above,’ ‘Come all you worthy gentlemen’ and ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing’ (also known as the ‘Sussex Carol’). These are interposed with brief orchestral quotations from other carols, such as ‘The First Nowell.’ Vaughan Williams had collected these folk songs in Sussex a few years earlier with his friend Cecil Sharp.

The notion of creating a musical structure out of folk tunes was not new to Vaughan Williams. His two Norfolk Rhapsodies (1905-1906) juxtaposed various contrasting melodies. Now Vaughan Williams saw the opportunity to feature a number of less familiar, unpublished English carols that he had collected with Cecil Sharp, as well as a number of old traditional favourites.

This Fantasia was dedicated to Cecil Sharp. It was first performed on the evening of 12 September 1912, conducted by the composer with the baritone Campbell McInnes.

True to his democratic convictions, Vaughan Williams made the work widely available in a variety of scorings: for full orchestra; for strings and organ; for organ or piano; and for solo cello.

This Fantasia is notable for its restraint. It is the least showy of his Christmas pieces, and it avoids more familiar carols.

Beginning with an introductory cello solo that has a narrative quality, the piece falls into four linked sections:

1, ‘This is the truth sent from above’ (baritone solo with wordless choral accompaniment):

The first part of the Fantasia is based on two variants of the same carol melody collected by Vaughan Williams in Herefordshire.

‘There is a fountain of Christ’s blood,’ was recorded by Vaughan Williams and Ella Leather, a folk singer, with Mr W Hancocks, a 70-year-old labourer, at Monnington, Herefordshire, in October 1908. ‘The truth sent from above’ was collected from Ella Leather, or sung by Mr W Jenkins at King’s Pyon, Herefordshire, in July 1909. This an English folk carol is of unknown authorship and was collected in the early 20th century by English folk song collectors, including Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp, in Shropshire and Herefordshire. A number of variations on the tune exist, but the text remains broadly similar.

Much of the haunting opening cello solo is derived from these two carols. Recounting the story of Adam’s fall and the coming of Christ the Redeemer, the tone is one of solemnity as the solo baritone intones ‘The truth sent from above,’ accompanied by a wordless chorus, evocative of a wintry rural English landscape.

After the final verse for chorus and soloist, the string orchestra breaks into ‘There is a fountain.’

Baritone Solo:

This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the god of love.
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,
But hearken all both rich and poor.

The first thing which I will relate,
Is that God did man create.
The next thing which to you I’ll tell,
Woman was made with man to dwell.

Then after this was God’s own choice
To place them both in paradise,
There to remain from evil free
Except they ate of such a tree.

And they did eat which was a sin,
And thus their ruin did begin,
Ruined themselves, both you and me,
And all of their posterity.


Thus we were heirs to endless woes
Till God the Lord did interpose,
And so a promise soon did run
That he would redeem us by his son
(That he would redeem us by his son),
By his son.

2, ‘Come all you worthy gentlemen’ (chorus and orchestra):

Vaughan Williams now introduces the more jovial ‘Somerset Carol’ (‘Come all you worthy gentlemen’), a variant on ‘God rest you merry gentlemen’, collected by Cecil Sharp in Bridgwater and published in the fifth series of his Folk Songs from Somerset in 1909. Its climax is marked by a brief citation of ‘The First Nowell.’

Come all you worthy gentlemen that may be standing by
Christ our blessed saviour was born on Christmas day.
The Blessed Virgin Mary unto the Lord did pray,
Oh we wish you the comfort and tidings of joy.

The Blessed Virgin Mary unto the Lord did pray,
Oh we wish you the comfort and tidings of joy.

Christ our Blessed Saviour now in the manger lay,
He’s lying in the manger while oxen feed on hay.
The Blessed Virgin Mary unto the Lord did pray,
Oh we wish you the comfort and tidings of joy.

The Blessed Virgin Mary unto the Lord did pray,
Oh we wish you the comfort and tidings of joy.
The Blessed Virgin Mary unto the Lord did pray,
Oh we wish you the comfort and tidings of joy.

3, ‘On Christmas night’ (solo baritone):

This third section is based on another carol collected by Vaughan Williams, the ‘Sussex Carol’ (‘On Christmas Night, all Christians sing’), sung by Mrs Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, on 24 May 1904. This was first published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society (1905) and later with in Eight Traditional English Carols (1919). This later combines with the ‘Somerset Carol’ and other carol quotations, including the ‘Wassail Song,’ a Yorkshire tune familiarised by Stainer, and ‘A Virgin most pure’ from Davies Gilbert’s Ancient Christmas Carols (1822).

Baritone Solo:

On Christmas night all Christians sing,
to hear the news the angels bring,
(News of great joy, news of great mirth.
News of our merciful King’s birth)
When Sin departs before thy grace,
then life and health come in its place.

Angels and men with joy may sing,
All for to see the new-born King,
(All for to see the new-born King).

4, The last verses of parts 2 and 3 combined, words and music: final apotheosis with prominent chimes and repeated references to ‘A Virgin most Pure.’

At the very end, Vaughan Williams removes us from the high spirits of merry-making in a poignant blessing for unaccompanied chorus, and we are carried back, as Michael Kennedy suggests, “across the snow-covered fields and away into the night.”

God bless the ruler of this house
and long on may he reign
(From out of darkness we have light
Which makes the angels sing this night)
Many happy Christmases he live to see again
(From out of darkness we have light
Which makes the angels sing this night).

God bless our generation
who live both far and near
(Glory to God and peace to men)
And we wish them a happy, a happy New Year
(Both now and evermore Amen).

God bless the ruler of this house
and long on may he reign
Many happy Christmases he live to see again
God bless our generation who live both far and near
And we wish them a happy, a happy New Year

Oh we wish you a happy, a happy New Year.
(Both now and evermore. Amen)

‘The Star of Bethlehem’ by Edward Burne-Jones

Tomorrow: ‘Hodie’, 1 and 2, Prologue, Narration

Christmas 2015:
A humanitarian
challenge to us all

‘The Irish Times’ carries the following full-length editorial on p. 15 this morning [24 December 2015]:

Christmas 2015:
A humanitarian
challenge to us all

There is an old adage that says “charity begins at home”. Unfortunately, this is often a flippant excuse for people who remain unwilling to support charities even when they are home-based. With a touch of irony, these same people often object too to paying taxes that might benefit those who otherwise find themselves depending on charitable support.

Yet one of the grim lessons of 2015 is that charity knows no boundaries and that bounty and generosity must know no borders. Figures from the United Nations last week show that the number of people forced to flee war, violence and persecution in 2015 has surpassed the record 60 million recorded last year. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that so far this year almost a million people have crossed the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants, and conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are “continuing to generate staggering levels of human suffering”.

These figures mean that one in every 122 people in the world has been forced to flee their home. “Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything,” says Antonio Guterres of the UNHCR. The Anglican bishop in the Diocese in Europe, David Hamid, has described the refugee crisis as the greatest humanitarian challenge faced by Europe since the end of World War II. “The numbers of people on the move have not been seen for over 70 years.”


During the first six months of this year, at least five million people were newly displaced, with 4.2 million of them remaining inside their countries and almost 840,000 crossing borders. This is the equivalent of 4,600 people becoming refugees every day. The main factor in shaping these figures is the war in Syria which has created up to five million refugees this year.

Turkey has become the new migration gateway into Europe with large numbers of Syrians arriving in Greece each day, accompanied by a huge influx too from Afghanistan and Iraq. This year has seen a 20-fold increase over last year of migrants and refugees crossing the Aegean Sea alone – 800,000 and still counting. For far too long, the countries of northern and central Europe have allowed Greece and Italy to be the breakwaters for waves of refugees from unstable, unfree or war-torn countries.

In the past two decades, more than six million people have applied for asylum in the EU. By the end of this year, Germany is expected to take in one million asylum-seekers. The work of the Irish Naval Service in the Mediterranean has been heroic. But the negative response of three Eastern states in particular beggars belief: after the collapse of Communism, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic produced the second-largest wave of economic migration to Europe in the last 20 years.


The UNHCR figures, published just a week before Christmas, are challenging and discomforting. But the Christmas story itself is a disturbing and uncomfortable account of conflict, displaced families and refugees in the very region that is a humanitarian challenge today.

The Christmas story begins with a displaced couple from Galilee finding there is no room at the inn in Bethlehem. There they are visited by wise men who travel from what is now Iraq across desert, rock and snow to a humble, temporary dwelling on the West Bank, and in the words of TS Eliot find:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

This family is soon forced by the murderous plans of a cruel tyrant to seek refuge in Egypt. Even when they return, Saint Matthew’s Gospel recounts, it is not safe for them to settle near Jerusalem and they move once again to Nazareth. Indeed, before the drawing of modern political borders in the Middle East in the 20th century, the hymn-writer John Greenleaf Whittier placed Christ’s life story “beside the Syrian sea”.

From the very beginning, the Bible is a shared story of forced exile, asylum and refugees. It is a story that begins with Abraham, a wandering Aramean, and that continues with exile in Egypt and in Babylon. Yet it always remains a story of hope and return, of compassion and love, of freedom and long yearning for peace and justice.

The poet Ursula Vaughan Williams sums up the hope at Christmas for an end to the world’s misery and for an outpouring of love and joy with the birth of Christ, in words written for Hodie, the Christmas cantata and last major composition by her husband, Ralph Vaughan Williams:

Promise fills the sky with light,
Stars and angels dance in flight;
Joy of heaven shall now unbind
Chains of evil from mankind,
Love and joy their power shall break,
And for a new born prince’s sake;
Never since the world began
Such a light such dark did span.

Waiting in Advent 2015
with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (26)

‘The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger’ … the Christmas scene in a stained glass window in the north ambulatory in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

We have come to end of Advent this year and awake this morning [24 December 2015] to Christmas Eve.

Throughout Advent, as we were waiting and prepare for Christmas, I have been inviting you to join me each morning for a few, brief moments in reflecting on the meaning of Advent through the words of the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). This has been my own Advent Calendar for this year.

During Christmas 1943, Bonhoeffer was alone in his cell, separated from his family and those he loved. In his cell, he had an Advent wreath and a picture of the nativity by Fra Filippo Lippi, a visual reminder of the Incarnation. He lit two candles in honour of his parents and his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, he hummed some tunes from his favourite hymns, and he read the Christmas story.

A year earlier, during Advent 1942, Bonhoeffer had written a circular letter to some of his friends and former students:

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.”

Now, in a Christmas letter to his parents, written on 17 December 1943, he has given up any hope of being free for Christmas, and he writes:

“From a Christian point of view, a Christmas in a prison cell is no special problem. It will probably be celebrated here in this house more sincerely and with more meaning than outside where the holiday is observed in name only. Misery, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something entirely different in the eyes of God than in the judgment of men.

“That God turns directly toward the place where men are careful to turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because he found no room in the Inn – a prisoner grasps that better than someone else. For him it really is a joyous message, and because he believes it, he knows that he has been placed in the Christian fellowship that breaks all the bounds of time and space; and the months in prison lose their importance.

“On Holy Evening [Christmas Eve], I will be thinking of all of you very much, and I would very much like for you to believe that I will have a few beautiful hours and my troubles will certainly not overcome me.

“If one thinks of the terrors that have recently come to so many people in Berlin, then one first becomes conscious of how much we still have for which to be thankful. Overall, it will surely be a very silent Christmas, and the children will still be thinking back on it for a long time to come. And maybe in this way it becomes clear to many what Christmas really is.”

On the night of 25 December, he sent a brief note to his parents, ending his seasonal correspondence with references to kith and kin. “Christmas is over. It brought me a few quiet, peaceful hours, and revived a good many past memories … I lit the candles that you and Maria sent me, read the Christmas story and a few carols that I hummed to myself, and in doing so I thought of you all.”

The Christmas story told in the panels of the colourful triptych that forms the reredos in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, Lichfield Gazette)

Readings (Church of Ireland lectionary): Pslams 45, 46; Baruch 4: 36 to 5: 9 or Isaiah 59: 15b-21; Galatians 3: 23 to 4: 7 or Matthew 1: 18-25.

The Collect of Christmas Eve:

Almighty God,
you make us glad with the yearly remembrance
of the birth of your Son Jesus Christ:
Grant that, as we joyfully receive him as our redeemer,
we may with sure confidence behold him
when he shall come to be our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God for whom we wait,
you feed us with the bread of eternal life:
Keep us ever watchful, that we may be ready
to stand before the Son of Man, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Series concluded.