03 January 2016

Christmas with Vaughan Williams (11):
‘The truth from above’

The Christmas scene in a window in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I am continuing my Christmas reflections, listening to the works of the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). This morning [3 January 2016], I am listening to the Choir of Somerville College, Oxford, singing ‘The truth sent from above.’

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral sang this carol at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols before Christmas [21 December 2015] and as the Communion Motet at the Sung Eucharist in the Cathedral last Sunday [27 December 2015].

‘The truth sent from above’ is an English folk carol of unknown authorship usually performed at Christmas. It was collected in the early 20th century by English folk song collectors in Shropshire and Herefordshire. A number of variations on the tune exist, but the text remains broadly similar.

Cecil Sharp collected an eight stanza version of the carol from a Mr Seth Vandrell and Mr Samuel Bradley of Donninglon Wood in Shropshire, although Sharp notes that there was a longer version existed in a locally-printed carol book.

Vaughan Williams collected a different, Dorian mode version of the carol at King’s Pyon, Herefordshire, in July 1909 from Mrs Ella Leather, a folk singer who had learnt the carol through the oral tradition.

This version is sometimes known as the Herefordshire Carol. Vaughan Williams first published the melody in the Folk-Song Society Journal in 1909, although there it is instead credited as being sung by a Mr W Jenkins of King’s Pyon.

Vaughan Williams later used this carol to open his Fantasia on Christmas Carols in 1912. Gerald Finzi, with permission from Vaughan Williams and Ella Leather, also used the melody as the basis of his 1925 choral work The Brightness of This Day, substituting the text for a poem by George Herbert.

In this recording by the Choir of Somerville College, Stephen O’Driscoll is the baritone, and David Crown is the conductor.

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

Thus we were heirs to endless woes,
’til God the Lord did interpose
And so a promise soon did run
That He would redeem us by his Son.

And at this season of the year
Our blest Redeemer did appear;
He here did live, and here did preach,
And many thousands he did teach.

Thus he in love to us behaved,
To show us how we must be saved;
and if you want to know the way,
Be pleased to hear what he did say.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Tomorrow:The First Nowell.’

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