04 January 2016

Christmas with Vaughan Williams (12):
‘The First Nowell’

A popular cartoon on social media this Christmas

Patrick Comerford

I am continuing my Christmas reflections, listening to the works of the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). This morning [4 January 2016], I am listening to ‘The First Nowell’ recorded in Saint Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London in December 2005.

The YouTube clip here of “The First Nowell” is the concluding portion from The First Nowell (1958), a Nativity play for soloists, chorus, and small orchestra by Vaughan Williams. This is probably the last piece ever written by the composer before his death. It was left unfinished and was completed by Roy Douglas after Vaughan Williams’s death, based on fragments left by the composer.

About a third of it needed to be orchestrated and fleshed out from sketches. After World War II, there were many ugly rumours that Douglas had done all the orchestrations of the composer’s more recent works. Vaughan Williams responded, in his self-deprecating humorous way, that it was not fair to attribute the scoring to Douglas, since Douglas was a professional musician who made his living by, among other things, orchestration.

After Vaughan Williams died, Douglas insisted that the composer’s publisher, the Oxford University Press, indicate with the initials ‘RD’ those sections that Douglas had worked on, because he did not want Vaughan Williams “to be blamed for my shortcomings.”

The First Nowell was first performed on 19 December 1958, four months after the death of Vaughan Williams.

Roy Douglas died earlier this year, on 23 March 2015, at the age of 107.

In this YouTube clip, the soprano is Sarah Fox, the baritone is Roderick Williams, and they are heard here with the Joyful Company of Singers, and the City of London Sinfonia, directed by the late Richard Hickox.

The First Nowell includes a number of other well-known Vaughan Williams works, including ‘The Salutation Carol,’ ‘The Cherry Tree Carol,’ and ‘The Sussex Carol’ (‘On Christmas Night’). ‘The First Nowell’ is the final, closing movement.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Tomorrow:The Sussex Carol

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