Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Year's Music: Vaughan Williams' "The First Nowell"

Continuing until Advent 2016, I plan to listen each week to at least one musical work with some sacred or spiritual dimension, as a kind of pleasurable spiritual discipline.

When Advent arrives, this piece is typically the music that I play first! There is a little bit of nostalgia associated with the piece.
During the early 1980s, I was just beginning to become devoted to Ralph Vaughan Williams' music. That was also the time when Beth and I were engaged and making plans. Sometime in 1983 or 1984, I shopped a favorite used vinyl store in Carbondale, IL and found an LP of RVW's "nativity play," The First Nowell. One of his final works (not quite finished, in fact, at his death in 1958), the piece uses traditional English carols composed together to form the Christmas story. Roy Douglas completed the score and the piece premiered in December of that same year. The sections are:

1. Prelude. God rest you merry and The truth from above
2. The Sussex Carol
3. Gabriel's Message (Angelus ad virginem)
4. Salutation Carol
5. Gabriel's Message
6. The Cherry Tree Carol
7. As Joseph Was A-walking
8. O Joseph Being an Old Man
9. In Bethlehem City
10. Bring Us in Good Ale
11. On Christmas Night (Sussex Carol)
12. The Shepherd's Farewell ("Tidings true there be come new")
13. How Brightly Shines the Morning Star
14. The Procession of the Kings to Bethlehem
15. The First Nowell

I purchased that used LP and cherished it for years. It is a Musical Heritage Society release from 1973 (MHS 3262, LCCC: 75-750825), not a record company release. The Choir of Calvary Presbyterian Church of Riverside, CA and the Pro Musica Orchestra are the performers. I could find no other LP recordings of the piece, and this was at the very beginning of CDs. I actually belonged to that record club in the 1980s and 90s, but this recording was no longer available through the club. So, knowing I might not find another copy, I took gentle care of the LP, played it every Christmas, and still have it. But now, the piece can be found on two CDs by other orchestras and choirs.

I like the recording on the Chandos label, with Richard Hickox conducting the City of London Sinfonia, and the Joyful Company of Singers. That CD has two other premieres: a string-and-organ arrangement of the already-well-known Fantasia on Christmas Carols, and a never-before-recorded masque, On Christmas Night, that tells the Dickens' Christmas story. There is also a recording on the Naxos label, which I've not yet heard.

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