William Walton's Christmas Carol All this Time
by John France

William Walton’s lovely Christmas carol ‘All this Time’ was written relatively late in his career, in 1970. The previous year had witnessed the premiere of the film The Battle of Britain which included music by Walton and Ron Goodwin, although subject to some considerable dissension. On 14 January 1970 his Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten was heard in San Francisco at the War Memorial Opera House performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Josef Krips. This work was a commission from the bio-chemist Dr Ralph Dorfman (1911-85) in memory of his first wife, Adeline Smith Dorman. The British premiere was at The Maltings, Snape on 27 June where Sir Charles Groves conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The year also saw music composed for the film of the Chekhov play Three Sisters, now forgotten, except for the three movement suite arranged by Christopher Palmer on Chandos (CHAN 8870). One other brief work composed in 1970 was the Theme (for variations) for cello solo: this was part of a joint work, Music for a Prince dedicated to Charles, Prince of Wales in celebration of his Investiture in Caernarvon the previous year. This collection, which included contributions by Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Bliss, Ronald Binge, Vivian Ellis, John Gardner, Joseph Horovitz, Mitch Murray, Steve Race, Ernest Tomlinson, Guy Warrack, Brian Willey, Grace Williams and David Wynne, appears to have sunk without trace. However, the Theme has been resurrected and included on Tony Woollard’s debut CD Cello Journey (WWRCJ1).

‘All this time’ is one of the few pieces that Walton wrote for unaccompanied mixed choir. John Coggrave (Craggs, 1999) has noted that there are some 15 settings of religious texts (not including Belshazzar’s Feast) made between 1916 and 1977. These fall into three groups:

1. Settings of medieval carol texts.
2. Full-scale setting of liturgical texts.
3. Treatments of poetic or biblical material.

There are four carols, (Group 1) written between 1931 and 1970 – ‘Make we Joy now in this Fest’ (1931), ‘What Cheer?’ (1961), ‘All this Time’ (1970) and ‘King Herod and the Cock’ (1977). Coggrave suggests that these are ‘delightful examples of medieval pastiche, as invigorating and accomplished as Walton’s neo-Elizabethan pastiche in his Shakespearean film scores.’ Neil Tierney (1984) considers that the vocal scoring of ‘All this Time’ has a ‘simplicity’ that ‘matches that of the words’. The first of these carols owes something to Peter Warlock’s examples of the genre without making use of chromatic harmonies in succeeding verses (Meurig Bowen, Hyperion sleeve-notes, CDA67330, 2002). ‘What Cheer?’ and ‘All this Time’ are vibrant and ‘full of harmonic bite’. The final example ‘King Herod and the Cock’ is a gentle Christmas carol with little to trouble or challenge the listener.

In March 1970 Walton was asked by Oxford University Press for a work to be included in the second volume of the popular Carols for Choirs, Volume 1 of which had been published in 1961 with conspicuous success. ‘All this time’ was published in Carols for Choirs 2, edited by David Willcocks and John Rutter (1970). It was also issued separately as an Oxford Choral Songs Series, X201. The manuscript is archived at the William Walton Museum in Forio d’Ischia, Italy.

The text of ‘All this Time’ is an anonymous 16th century carol, written before 1536, possibly derived by the composer from Edith Rickert’s Ancient English Christmas Carols, 1400-1700, London 1910, and subsequently reprinted many times. Rickert (1871-1938) was a significant medievalist at the University of Chicago. Her major contributions included collaboration on Chaucer Life-Records and the eight-volume Text of the Canterbury Tales (1940).

There are a few minor verbal differences, and the addition of the refrain ‘All this time this song is best’ at the end of each stanza. The words ‘Verbum caro factum est’ translate to ‘The Word was made flesh.' I have shown Walton’s changes in italics and Rickert’s original text (assuming he used this edition) in square brackets. Minor punctuation changes have been ignored.

All this time this song is best:
All this time this song is best:
‘Verbum caro factum est.’

This night there is a Child y-born,
That sprang out of Jesse’s thorn;
We must sing and say thereforn,
All this time this song is best:
‘Verbum caro factum est.’

Jesus is the Childės name
And Mary mild is His dame,
All our sorrow [is] shall turn[ed] to game:
All this time this song is best:
‘Verbum caro factum est.’

It fell upon [the] high midnight,
The starres [they] shone both fair and bright,
The angels sang with all their might:
All this time this song is best:
‘Verbum caro factum est.’

Now kneel we down [up]on our knee,
And pray we to the Trinity,
Our help, our succour for to be.
All this time this song is best:
‘Verbum caro factum est.’

The theme of the song is the story of the Nativity with the refrain emphasising the theological interpretation that ‘Verbum caro factum est’ - ‘The Word was made flesh’. This is the fundamental meaning of the events in Bethlehem both at the time of Jesus’ birth and for the present.

The carol is simplicity itself. William Kenneth Fulton’s (1981) dissertation provided me with analytical information on this carol. The music beings with a setting of the refrain in four parts. Walton has used the Mixolydian mode in A (scale based on A with F#, C# and G natural). However he does make use of the G# in the progress of the music.

The verses are written in A Lydian mode (scale based on A with F#, G#, C# and D#). There is a prominent octave leap at the beginning of each verse. The first three stanzas are presented by sopranos, tenors and sopranos respectively using virtually the same melody. Each time this is followed by the refrain. The final stanza is sung by the full (S.A.T.B.) choir. The carol closes with the refrain and a repeated ‘Verbum caro’. The harmony makes considerable use of parallel fourths and fifths.

In a letter dated 9 October 1972 from La Mortella, Forio d’Ischia William Walton remarked to Malcolm Arnold, ‘I’m glad you like the S.A.T.B piece [the carol ‘All this Time’] I’m getting to like it a bit myself & so[,] he writes me, does the great B. himself.’ There is no doubt the ‘great B’ was in fact Benjamin Britten. I was unable to find the reference in The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976, Volume 5, (2010) edited Donald Mitchell.

Over the years there have been a number of recordings of William Walton’s ‘All this Time’. At present there are 10 listed in the Arkiv CD database. The earliest, in 1972, was by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford conducted by Simon Preston (Argo ZRG 725). This was part of an LP dedicated to Walton’s church music. S.W. writing in The Gramophone (November 1972) notes that the carol has already become popular by its inclusion in the then recent Carols for Choirs 2. Christ Church was where the young Walton was admitted aged 10, so this album was an appropriate present for his 70th birthday.

In 1987 a fascinating album of Christmas music by Holst and Walton was issued by Nimbus records (NI 5098). Once again it featured the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, this time conducted by Stephen Darlington. It is still available from record shops and online. The carol was included in the Chandos ‘complete’ cycle of Walton’s music in 1991 (CHAN 8998). It was coupled with the other carols, the Coronation Marches (1937) and (1953) and In Honour of the City of London (1937) as well as some of the liturgical works. Most recently it has been featured on A York Yuletide: The Choir of York Minster with the musical director Robert Sharpe (Regent, REGCD467). There is currently (accessed November 2015) a good version of ‘All this Time’ on YouTube sung by the Finzi Singers conducted by Paul Spicer.

Select Bibliography:
Craggs, Stewart R, William Walton: A Catalogue (Oxford University Press, 1990)
Ed. Craggs, Stewart R, William Walton: Music and Literature (London, Ashgate, 1999)
Fulton, William Kenneth, Selected Choral Works of William Walton (Ph.D. Dissertation, Texas Technical University 1981)
Smith, Carolyn J., William Walton: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Tierney, Neil, William Walton: His Life and Music, (London, Robert Hale, 1984)