To help you understand and appreciate Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols, you must first know what a fantasia is. In this context, it's certainly not an American Idol winner. In musical terms, a fantasia is a loosely structured piece of music based on improvisation. It first appeared in music prior to the Renaissance, referring to music that was "imaginative." As it applies to this piece, traditional English Christmas carols are interpreted, rewritten, and scored according to Vaughan Williams.
About Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Several years prior to the composition and publication of Fantasia on Christmas Carols in 1912, Vaughan Williams traveled throughout southern England in places like Norfolk, Sussex, and Surrey. His goal was to collect and write down as many English folk songs as he could find. Most of these folk songs existed only in the minds of their beholders and were dangerously close to becoming extinct. Fantasia on Christmas Carols was first performed in 1912, at the Hereford Cathedral as part of the Three Choirs Festival. This festival dates back to 1719, and originally featured one choir from the three cathedrals located in the English counties, Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester. The week-long festival is considered to be one of the oldest choral festivals still in operation today.
There are four English carols that make up this fantasia: "The Truth Sent From Above," "Come All You Worthy Gentlemen," "On Christmas Night," and "There is a Fountain." The rather short piece, lasting twelve minutes or so, is scored for full orchestra, solo baritone, solo tenor, and chorus. It begins with a gorgeous cello solo. After several bars go by, the baritone joins in singing with deep sincerity, "The Truth Sent From Above." As more and more instruments are layered in, along with the chorus, the piece becomes awash in luxurious and velvety smooth sound. It's absolutely divine, and one of the reasons why I enjoy Ralph Vaughan Williams' music so much. The piece gains traction when the chorus rapturously announces "Come All You Worthy Gentleman." This joyful tempo remains throughout the rest of the work until the tenor sings, "We wish you a happy New Year," and the piece ends with the chorus singing a stunning A Capella, "Both now and evermore. Amen." This truly is a great Christmas work, and I hope that one day, it will receive all the attention it deserves.
I bet you're curious to hear it now, am I right? Here is a great YouTube recording of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols. I've also found a great classical music Christmas CD on Amazon that includes this piece. Preview, purchase, and download Holiday Pops by the Boston Pops Orchestra.
About the Composer
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. Like the many classical composers before him, he began studying music at an early age. He was never really good at playing the piano, but he had no trouble playing the violin well - a skill for which he was grateful. He studied music at the Charterhouse School, the Royal College of Music, and Trinity College, Cambridge. Unlike Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vaughan Williams was a late bloomer. He didn't publish his first piece of music until he was thirty years old. During his travels, he took a great interest in English folk music, and later served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Given his young age, he lived through both World Wars, and even served during World War I as a stretcher bearer.