Vaughan Williams, Ralph: Sussex Carol, A (On Christmas Night)
SATB unaccompanied or solo unison and piano
Taken from Eight Traditional English Carols
Among the best-loved carols in English, ‘On Christmas Night’ was collected by Vaughan Williams in 1904 at Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex, from Harriet Verrall, one of his most trusted folk singers. While both the music and words were newly discovered, several variants of the text had been in circulation since the seventeenth century, being founded on a ‘short caroll for Christmas Day’ published in Ghent in 1684, in Luke Wadding’s Smale Garland of Pious and Godly Songs.
The present arrangement of the tune, as taken down by the composer from Mrs Verrall, first appeared as the second of the Eight Traditional English Carols, published by Stainer & Bell in 1919, the melody and first two verses having also featured previously in the Fantasia on Christmas Carols of 1912. Later, as Sussex Carol, it was also included in The Oxford Book of Carols of 1928.
With the aim of making the heritage of folksong widely accessible, the composer provided the eight carols of 1919 with alternative arrangements: for voices and piano (though an organ with light, clear registrations would be no less appropriate); and for simple SATB unaccompanied singing without divisions. Both versions have been retained in this new impression of ‘On Christmas Night’, in spacious contemporary musical type that supersedes the earlier engraving.
Also reproduced from the original, in verse three, are several interesting anomalies between the words of the solo and a cappella versions; and indeed, with regard to the last line, between this setting and the Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Variants of the text collected by Cecil Sharp, and those published through the work of the Folk-Song Society, would doubtless also have been known to the composer, and it may be that such small inconsistencies arose simply from oversight or misremembering. They have been retained, on the principle not only that priority is impossible to determine, but also that it reflects the spirit of the folksong material itself – fluid, spontaneous and anonymously evolving – that Vaughan Williams so highly revered.
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