Saturday, 22 October 2016


Vaughan Williams appears frequently in my book and has cropped up not a few times in this blog too, probably more than any other composer. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, he's one of my favourite composers. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, his influence on hymn music in England is enormous, thanks to his work as Music Editor of important books such as The English Hymnal and Songs of Praise. Some of the best-known hymn-tunes owe their success to RVW, and indeed many of them would not have become hymn-tunes at all if it had not been for him. Most of the folk-songs that he adapted for use as hymns were given names referring to the place where the tune was collected, so this means that his work is a rich source for someone who is interested in the link between the place and the music.

While I was researching the book I contacted the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society for some information about the origins of FOREST GREEN. The Chairman of the Society, Simon Coombs, not only kindly provided me with some interesting leads for my research, but also offered to review the book in the Society's Journal, and invited me to address the AGM as their guest speaker, on 2nd October this year.

The meeting was held at the Surrey Performing Arts Library, in the grounds of Denbies Wine Estate near Dorking. The Library has a room dedicated to Vaughan Williams, and it was here that the members of the RVW Society gathered for their AGM. After the main business of the meeting I gave a talk on O Little Town: hymn-tunes and the places that inspired them, with musical illustrations provided by members of the English Arts Chorale conducted by their founder and Artistic Director, Leslie Olive. The talk was well-received and I even managed to sell a few copies of the book!

Denbies Wine Estate near Dorking
Vaughan Williams' childhood home, Leith Hill Place, is not far from Dorking, and as an adult the composer lived in Dorking during the 1930s. The Dorking Halls, which was originally built as a performance venue for the Leith Hill Festival, has a statue of him just outside the entrance, honouring the great composer who did so much for the area.
Statue of Vaughan Williams by William Fawkes
The hymn-tune DORKING is not very well known. It appears in the enlarged edition of Songs of Praise, the hymn-book which Percy Dearmer compiled for use as a 'national' hymnal suitable for public singing and for use in schools; the music editors were Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw (the latter being the composer of LITTLE CORNARD, about which I have written in an earlier post). In Songs of Praise the tune DORKING is used for a hymn beginning 'Hail, glorious spirits, heirs of light'. The tune is described as being 'Adapted from an English Traditional Melody'.

The traditional melody in question is 'Queen Eleanor's Confession'. The words of this song appear in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a scholarly collection first published in the 1880s and 1890s by Francis James Childs. A recording of the ballad by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span can be heard on YouTube here.

I haven't found a recording of the hymn tune so here is an artificial one played on organ, with no singers. The picture is of a Dorking chicken, an ancient breed introduced by the Romans; the town of Dorking was an important centre of poultry production during the nineteenth century.