This post celebrates the Birthday Anniversary of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who would have been 150 tomorrow! To mark the occasion, pianist and composer Garreth Brooke, who is a pianist and composer based in Germany, has written four piano solo arrangements of folk songs. Here, he tells us why he felt compelled to write these pieces; you can also hear each arrangement and download the score for free at the end of this post.
In the admittedly unlikely event that he were alive today, Ralph Vaughan Williams would reach his 150th birthday on the 12th October 2022: a grand old age for a grand old man, and a good reason to celebrate.
Amongst his many achievements, one of the most appealing things about Vaughan Williams is that he believed that composers had an important role in society; their job was to make music accessible to all. He did this in many ways, many of which are less well known nowadays, including conducting and composing music for amateur orchestras and choirs, editing The English Hymnal, a book that would be found in churches all over England, founding and running musical festivals and—most picturesquely of all—traveling around England and transcribing folk songs as sung by locals.
Folk song “collecting”, as it was known, is a fundamentally democratic process: the transcriber might hear variants of the same song sung in several different ways by several different people over the course of their travels, and would record them all. Folk music, in contrast to the classical music with which Vaughan Williams spent most of his time, was a flexible, constantly evolving thing. There can be no one final version of a folk song, in the way that there might arguably be a final or “best” version of a classical composition.
Folk music evolves, it is organic. Best of all, that means we can engage in that process, we can make our own versions, adapt old melodies and make them our own. Vaughan Williams frequently did that himself, when arranging, for example, ‘Dives and Lazarus’ into the glorious suite for orchestra and harp that bears its name.
When I found out that RVW’s 150th birthday was approaching, I dived into the enormous online archive of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (vwml.org), selected some of the most appealing folk melodies, and arranged them for solo piano. The arrangements are suitable for upper-intermediate level students, particularly those with an interest in folk and modal music. Inspired by RVW’s inclusive and nurturing approach, I left space for pianists to improvise their own melodies, and gave simple instructions for budding composers to create their own arrangement.
I hope that my sheet music book and arrangement guide, which you can download for free at the end of this article, encourages more people to explore Vaughan Williams’ extraordinary music, his extensive archive, and to get creative!
You can listen to the first piece in the collection, here:
Hear all the pieces by clicking here.
Download the score, here:
Garreth Brooke Four Songs Without Words for Ralph Vaughan Williams Vol 1
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.
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