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Focus on RVW150: Ella Mary Leather

When I started to assemble a programme of music with the aim of helping choirs in their planning of Vaughan Williams’s 150th Anniversary celebrations in 2022, I was keen not only to include a representation of some of his best-known music but also to give a platform to some wonderful items which, if not forgotten, have been overlooked in favour of more obvious examples within a particular style. Hence the inclusion of two lovely pieces from Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire, published by Stainer & Bell in 1920.

It is, of course, well known that Vaughan Williams collected folk music, and yet he did not feel entirely comfortable engaging in the activity. He was, according to Michael Kennedy, uneasy about trying to persuade people who were suspicious of upper-class ‘toffs’ coming down from London to sing songs into rudimentary recording equipment. He was hugely grateful, therefore, to have the assistance of Ella Mary Leather of Weobley, near Hereford, for her assistance during numerous visits to the locality. Mrs Leather, daughter of a local gentleman farmer of hops and cattle, and wife of a solicitor who served as an army colonel in the First World War, must have been a very familiar figure in the area as she regularly rode out on her bicycle in search of local people and travellers who were willing to share their stories and songs.

Roy Palmer’s introduction to his new edition of the Herefordshire Carols, published in 2011, includes a quote from Mrs Leather’s diary that sheds light on the recording process. ‘Dr and Mrs Vaughan Williams and I found their camp in a little round field, at dusk, on a fine September evening. There were several caravans there, each with its wood fire burning … other families being there beside Alfred Price Jones, whom we were seeking. His wife was very ill, and we found him with her under an awning near one of the fires. He agreed to sing, so we all sat down on upturned buckets, and while Dr Williams noted the tune his wife and I took down alternate lines of the words.’

Ella Mary Leather

It is fortunate that a handful of wax cylinder recordings have survived from this period. ‘Pretty Caroline/Noble man and the Thresherman’, sung by Mrs Ellen Powell in August 1908, was apparently made by Mrs Leather and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and can be heard on the British Library website.

Mrs Leather and Ralph maintained a correspondence over many years; she would forward her transcriptions of the words of folksongs, sometimes with her own annotations of newly heard tunes. Her handwritten texts can be viewed on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website, and they include On Christmas Day (part of the RVW150 Collection), a shocking story of a family’s alarming fate on the Lord’s Birthday!

In looking through the records at Stainer & Bell of the publication of the Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire, I noticed that this collection is always referenced as having been jointly ‘Collected and Arranged by E. M. Leather and R. Vaughan Williams’, never simply by Vaughan Williams alone. Furthermore, when VW received a letter from the young Gerald Finzi at the end of 1923 asking – sometime after the deed had been done! – if he had the eminent composer’s permission to use the tune of ‘This is the truth sent from above’ in his anthem The Brightness of This Day, Vaughan Williams responded, ‘As far as I am concerned, with pleasure … But please ask Mrs Leather as well.’1

With this acknowledgement of the role that Ella Mary Leather played in creating these new arrangements of exceptionally fine folk tunes, it seems fitting to leave the final, fond recollections of the field trips the pair made to RVW himself, written in an obituary he wrote following her death in 1928. ‘One of [our] expeditions remains clearly in my memory. It was a cold, clear September night and we stood in the light of a blazing fire in the open ground of the encampment; the fire had been specially lighted to enable us to note down tunes and words in the growing darkness. Then out of the half-light there came the sound of a beautiful tenor voice singing The Unquiet Grave.2 It was a memorable experience.’

Angus Smith
© Stainer & Bell

1 The Brightness of This Day by Gerald Finzi   Baritone solo, Double Chorus (SSATB) with organ. Stainer & Bell W59

2 RVW wrote several arrangements of the tune, also known as ‘How Cold the Wind doth Blow’.

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