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Ralph Vaughan Williams' The First Nowell – a Nativity Play
by John France
At Christmastide, I try to listen to several pieces of music. These include J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, the seasonal parts of Messiah and Marc-Antoine Charpentier Messe de Minuit pour NoŽl.
In my early days of listening to classical music, I heard a broadcast on BBC Radio 4 of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music for the nativity play, The First Nowell. It was broadcast on 23 December 1973. I immediately warmed to this piece, feeling that it embodied much of the spirit of Christmas. I never heard this music again until 2006, when the Chandos record label issued it on a CD of Christmas music. It has become one of my ‘must hear’ pieces for the season.
As a matter of detail, the version of The First Nowell that I heard in 1973 featured Sally le Sage and John Carol Case, both sadly no longer alive. The Serenata of London was conducted by Bernard Keefe.
Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of RVW (OUP, 1964/1988) wrote: ‘Simona Pakenham [friend, and author of an appreciation of the composer] and her husband Noel Iliff bicycled over from Kensington to ask Ralph to provide music for a script Simona had made from medieval mystery plays.’ It was a ‘short Christmas piece that needed carol tunes and incidental music.’ The score had to be completed ‘by November for the singers to learn in time for a December matinee…’.
The liner notes for the Chandos CD quotes Simona Pakenham’s explanation of the work’s genesis: ‘In early July 1958, I was asked by Austin Williams, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, to persuade Vaughan Williams to collaborate with me on the writing of a nativity play. This was to be given at a matinee at Drury Lane Theatre on 19 December in support of the Ockendon Venture – a charity that was building a village to house refugee children. I hesitated to put this to Vaughan Williams because I knew he was always busy with the composition of the moment… I went to tea at Hanover Terrace on 6 July and I was astonished that he considered the idea at all. The mere mention of Christmas inspired him. He had a passion for carols.’
Vaughan Williams did protest about the small size of the Drury Lane orchestra pit. He wrote to Simona Pakenham (24 August 1958): Very MUCH AGAINST MY WILL. I have arranged for an orchestra of 32…’ (ed. Cobbe, Hugh, Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams 1895-1958, Oxford, 2008). In a footnote, Cobbe states that the theatre management had insisted that the stage and orchestra pit layout for My Fair Lady would not be altered during the charity event.
The composer died two days after posting this letter.
The First Nowell was to be RVWs last ‘completed’ work.’ Due to the death of the composer, Roy Douglas, his amanuensis, was asked to complete and edit the work, so as not to disappoint the singers. When the score was examined it was found to be three-quarters complete (Douglas, Roy, Working with RVW, OUP, 1972) with fragmentary sketches (very rough) made for the remainder. Douglas had to recreate the Procession of the Three Kings and some extra bars that were required for the ‘theatrical business’, which had to be done in ‘imitation Vaughan Williams.’ He wrote that the work was ‘completed from ‘first sketches, second drafts, third thoughts and semi-final scores.’’ The score, published by Oxford University Press in 1959, is clearly marked with details of what sections were composed by R.V.W. and those completed by R.D. (Roy Douglas). Douglas did not want ‘posterity [to blame RVW] for my shortcomings.’ Bearing in mind the false rumours that had circulated after the war that Roy Douglas had orchestrated the elder composer’s symphonies, it was hardly surprising.
Ursula Vaughan Williams (op. cit.) noted that RVW ‘liked Simona’s choice of episodes and immediately started thinking about tunes to fit…he went to the box-room for carol books to start on it at once.’ Interestingly, she states that RVW was asked to take part, playing God and the eldest Shepherd, however he declined suggesting that ‘he’d stick to the music.’
The play gives the story of Christ’s birth - from the Annunciation through to the visit of the Magi at the Epiphany. It consists of spoken and singing parts, lasting for some 50 minutes. The concert version, which excludes dialogue, features a selection of 12 numbers: The score suggests that three more may be included ‘if wished.’ This lasts for just under half an hour and features soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra.
John Cook (RVW Society Journal, October 2015) has reminded the listener that Pakenham insisted that the libretto was not ‘biblically accurate’. Nor was it intended to use ‘biblical’ props or costumes. She suggested that ‘any period of English costume between the thirteenth and the fifteenth century is suitable.’
Michael Kennedy’s catalogue of the composer’s music give the details of Vaughan Williams use of several traditional ‘Christmas’ tunes in his arrangement, including ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’ ‘The Truth sent from above,’ ‘Angelus ad virginem’, the Salutation Carol, ‘Nowell, Nowell…, which is used to set the greeting of the angel Gabriel,’ two incarnations of ‘The Cherry Tree Carol,’ ‘As Joseph was walking,’ ‘A virgin most pure,’ ‘The Sussex Carol,’ and ‘How brightly shone the morning star’ in RVW's own translation. The work concludes with a beautiful version of The First Nowell. Clearly, the composer had compounded familiar tunes with rarities.
RVW once said: ‘I think that every Christmas play ought to begin with ‘God rest you Merry [Gentlemen]’ and end with ‘The First Nowell’’: he uses this formula here to great effect.
The First Nowell was premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London on 19 December 1958. It was performed by several soloists and speakers including Geraint Evans and John Westbrook. The St Martin-in-the-Fields Concert Orchestra and Singers were conducted by John Churchill.
Frank Howes reviewed the premiere of The First Nowell in the The Times (20 December 1958). He began by reporting that ‘actors, musicians, dancers and comedians of the London theatre had contributed their arts and skills to raising £4000 [about £70,000 in 2016] for the refugee fund. From a musical point of view, Howes suggests that it has some resemblance to Rutland Boughton’s music drama Bethlehem (1915) although it was ‘less opera, more play.’ John Churchill, then organist of St Martin’s-in-the-Field, led the assembled forces ‘with authentic feeling for this music, formally so simple, emotionally so rich.’ He noted Roy Douglas’s contribution in completing the work. Douglas ‘knew Vaughan Williams’s mind and, perhaps a rarer accomplishment, could read his handwriting’.
As for the text, Howes felt that it was ‘direct and so avoids preciosity.’ He noted that it incorporated ‘the comedy of the shepherds in their fields abiding with Mr. George Rose to impart a rustic accent to it…’ However, the libretto dealt ‘restrainedly with Joseph…’ and gave the Virgin Mary a ‘dignified simplicity.’
The Chandos CD (CHAN10385 -
review) of The First Nowell is coupled with the equally attractive On Christmas Night composed in 1926 and the well-known Fantasia on Christmas Carols dating from 1912. Richard Hickox conducted the City of London Sinfonia, the Joyful Company of Singers, the soprano Sarah Fox and baritone Roderick Williams.
The editor of Gramophone (December 2006) made the CD his ‘editor’s choice’ for the month: ‘There is no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than this enchanting RVW disc, which contains some delightful rarities…With glowing playing and singing under the baton of Richard Hickox, there is plenty for the head as well as the Christmas heart.’
On the website, Classical Net, Steve Schwartz suggests that listeners should not expect another Hodie but points out that the arrangement of the music is simpler, less ambitious and largely straightforward.
Finally, Stephen Connock, in the liner notes (CHAN 10385) provides an ideal summary of The First Nowell’s appeal: ‘Vaughan Williams’s Christmas music in its freshness and warmth speaks directly to the heart. It is music to be played and cherished on Christmas Eve, at home, near the fire, with children safe and all at heart’s-ease.’