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Marlow Community Choir at Borlase

John Rutter - 'The Sprig Of Thyme' (OUP)

A cycle of folk song settings, for mixed choir with chamber ensemble arranged by John Rutter

John Rutter's The Sprig of Thyme comprises a suite of eleven folk-song settings accompanied by piano or chamber ensemble (using one player per string part) or chamber orchestra (using orchestral strings).

For children growing up in postwar England as I did, traditional songs still formed a common musical currency. The first songs we sang were nursery rhymes like Oranges and lemons and Pop goes the weasel; at school, we warbled Early One Morning and Drink To Me only in singing class, and O God, Our Help In Ages Past and Holy, Holy, Holy in morning assembly; at scout camp, we endured Ten Green Bottles and One Man Went To Mow. Those of us that sang in choirs were thoroughly familiar with the choral folk song arrangements of Vaughan Williams and Holst; and absolutely everyone could recognize Rule, Britannia, Greensleeves and The National Anthem. Probably none of us stopped to think that this heritage of ‘traditional’ song had been fairly deliberately created: the approved repertoire of nursery rhymes stemmed largely from a BBC radio programme called Listen with Mother, the school class singing repertoire from The National Song Book, and the hymns we knew from Hymns Ancient and Modern (middle-of-the-road late Victorian), The English Hymnal (edited by Vaughan Williams, rather more high church) and Songs of Praise (Vaughan Williams again, mildly radical and strong on social service). Vaughan Williams, who collected folk songs and saw them as crucial to a revival of our national musical consciousness, was also one of the moving forces behind the prevalence of folk songs, which, along with italic handwriting, pottery and the weaving of rush mats, were considered good for the young.

It is easy to poke fun at the worthiness, gentility and cultural nationalism of this vanished age, soon to give place to the more frantic, colourful and cosmopolitan ’60s. Yet the songs it promoted formed a more solid bedrock for a shared musical culture than today’s television jingles, pop songs and football chants. Among the numerous As I Went Out One Morning’s that fill folk song collections, you can find love songs of exquisite and fragile beauty such as O Waly, Waly and The Sprig Of Thyme, drinking songs of picaresque humour such as The Miller Of Dee, lullabies of heart-easing tenderness such as O Can Ye Sew Cushions. These songs brought me delight and pleasure then, and they still do now, though pleasure has become tinged with nostalgia because, for the most part, they are forgotten and gone from our lives, perhaps forever. This cycle is an affectionate tribute to their composers and poets; a few were renowned, most were obscure or unknown, but the songs they created were famous, and I remember them fondly.

John Rutter

Sprig Of Thyme

1. The Bold Grenadier (English) [SATB]

The Bold Grenadier warns that young girls should beware of falling for dashing soldiers, who will surely love them and leave them.

As I was a-walking one morning in May,
I spied a young couple a-making of hay.
O one was a fair maid and her beauty shone clear,
And the other was a soldier, a bold grenadier.

‘Good morning, good morning, good morning,’ said he:
‘O where are you going, my pretty lady?’
‘I am going a-walking by the clear crystal stream,
To see cool waters glide and hear nightingales sing.’

‘O soldier, O soldier, will you marry me?’
‘Oh, no my sweet lady, that never can be:
For I’ve got a wife at home in my own country;
Two wives and the army’s too many for me.’

As I was a-walking one morning in May
I spied a young couple a-making of hay.
O one was a fair maid and her beauty shone clear,
And the other was a soldier, a bold grenadier.

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2. The Keel Row (English, Northumbrian) [SATB]

The Keel Row is a Geordie lassie's love song. She praises her handsome Johnny and hopes that the boat he sails in will be seaworthy.

Weel May the Keel Row is a Fo'c'sle Song which originated as a Traditional Tyne River Shanty. Its origins, history tells us, stretch back into the mists of time. In fact the Keelmen were transporting coal from the riverside to ships on the Tyne as early as the 1300s. And the song was almost certainly popular when Francis Drake was plying his youthful trade in these northern waters.

Since these early beginnings it has become universally accepted as a sea shanty, and as a folk dance. It has been described as 'typical in the repertoire of a ship's fiddler'. The Keel Row is included as a Reel in 4/4 time in the Folk Song and Dance Society handbooks. As ever there several versions of the song - some of them built for seafarers!!

'Where is Sandgate and what is a keel row?' you may ask. Well.... There is a street at the western end of the Newcastle Quayside called Sandgate - the one-time home of the unique keelmen. These were highly skilled boatmen who once sailed the River Tyne, transporting coal from the quays to awaiting ships. The keelmen took their name from their small vessels - called Keels, which could carry 20 tons of coal. The boat-name Keel almost certainly originated from its Anglo-Saxon predecessor of the 5th and 6th centuries called a Ceol. And presumably it could be rowed with oars (paddles?) or sailed if the winds were favourable.

The keelmen community is said to have originated from the raiding Scottish borderers and was very insular, intermarrying within their own population. The keelmen were tough, militant and resilient, in what was a very hard and dangerous occupation; and dressed in a distinctive blue jacket, belled trousers, and a black silk hat tied with a ribbon (alluded to in one of the vernacular verses) - all designed and made by their own tailors. All that remains of this way of life now is the name of the street and the songs, among which the most famous is The Keel Row.

(Thanks to the MusicSmiles website for this information.)

As I came through Sandgate,
I heard a lassie sing:
O weel may the keel row
That my laddie’s in.

O who’s like my Johnny,
Sae leish, sae blith, sae bonny,
He’s foremost of the mony
Keel lads o’coaly Tyne.

He’ll set and row so tightly,
Or in the dance so sprightly,
He’ll cut and shuffle sightly,
’Tis true, were he not mine.

He wears a blue bonnet,
A dimple in his chin.
And weel may the keel row
That my laddie’s in.

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3. The Willow Tree (English, Hampshire) [SATB]

The Willow Tree is a young man's lament – for lost wealth, a false friend, lost love and lost hope.

O take me to your arms, love,
For keen doth the wind blow,
O take me to your arms, love,
For bitter is my deep woe.
She hears me not, she heeds me not,
Nor will she listen to me,
While here I lie alone
To die beneath the willow tree.

My love hath wealth and beauty,
Rich suitors attend her door,
My love hath wealth and beauty,
She slights me because I’m poor.
The ribbon fair that bound her hair
Is all that is left to me,
While here I lie alone
To die beneath the willow tree.

I once had gold and silver,
I thought them without end,
I once had gold and silver,
I thought I had a true friend.
My wealth is lost, my friend is false,
My love hath he stolen from me,
While here I lie alone
To die beneath the willow tree.

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4. The Sprig Of Thyme (English, Lincolnshire) [Unison/Upper Voices]

The Sprig of Thyme warns young girls of the dangers of falling in love. In folk lore, thyme is a symbol of innocence; once stolen, it is lost for ever. In this song, first documented in 1689, a false young man steals a maiden's love, then deserts her. She waits for time to pass and for the thyme in her garden to grow again, but cannot forget her love.

Once I had a sprig of thyme.
It prospered by night and by day
Till a false young man came a-courting to me,
And he stole all this thyme away.

The gardener was standing by:
I bade him choose for me.
He chose me the lily and the violet and the pink
But these I refused all three.

Thyme it is the prettiest thing,
And time it will grow on,
And time it will bring all things to an end,
And so does my time grow on.

It’s very well drinking ale,
And it’s very well drinking wine:
But it’s far better sitting by a young man’s side
That has won this heart of mine.

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5. Down By The Sally Gardens (Irish) [Men's Voices]

Down By The Sally Gardens is a mature man's lament for lost love and lost youth. He regrets that he could not be carefree and light-hearted in his youth, as his sweetheart advised him; now it's too late.

Down by the sally gardens my love and I did meet.
She passed the sally gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
As the leaves grow on the tree.
But I being young and foolish,
With her did not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand.
And on my leaning shoulder she placed her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
As the grass grows on the weirs.
But I was young and foolish,
And now am full of tears.

W. B. Yeats, 1865–1939

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6. The Cuckoo (English) [SATB]

The Cuckoo tells of the joy of falling in love and the pain of betrayal. A girl wishes she could tell all men of the pain and grief their lies cause.

O the cuckoo she’s a pretty bird, she singeth as she flies;
She bringeth good tidings, she telleth no lies.
She sucketh white flowers, for to keep her voice clear;
And the more she singeth cuckoo, the summer draweth near.

As I was a-walking and a-talking one day,
I met my own true love, as he came that way.
O to meet him was a pleasure, though the courting was a woe,
For I found him false-hearted, he would kiss me and go.

I wish I were a scholar and could handle the pen,
I would write to my lover and to all roving men.
I would tell them of the grief and woe that attend on their lies,
I would wish them have pity on the flower when it dies.

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7. I Know Where I'm Going (Irish) [Unison/Upper Voices]

I Know Where I'm Going is about another 'handsome, winsome Johnny', this time sung by a rich girl whose family don't approve of her choice. She is prepared to give up all her wealth for Johnny, but knows that her future is uncertain.

I know where I’m going,
And I know who’s going with me,
I know who I love
But the dear knows who I’ll marry!

I have stockings of silk,
Shoes of fine green leather,
Combs to buckle my hair,
And a ring for every finger.

Some say he’s black*,
But I say he’s bonny,
The fairest of them all
My handsome, winsome Johnny.

Feather beds are soft,
And painted rooms are bonny,
But I would leave them all
To go with my love Johnny.

I know where I’m going,
And 1 know who’s going with me,
I know who I love
But the dear knows who I’ll marry!

*black: dour, ungracious

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8. Willow Song (English, 16th century) [SATB]

Willow Song is a sorrowful lament in which the willow tree and willow garland symbolise lost love.

A poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing willow, willow, willow!
With his hand in his bosom and his head upon his knee.
O willow, O willow my garland shall be.
Sing all a green willow,
Ah me! the green willow my garland must be.

He sighed in his singing and made a great moan,
Sing willow, willow, willow!
I am dead to all pleasure, my true love is gone!
O willow, O willow my garland shall be.
Sing all a green willow,
Ah me! the green willow my garland must be.

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9. O Can Ye Sew Cushions (Scottish) [Unison/Upper Voices]

O Can You Sew Cushions? expresses tender maternal love in a gentle lullaby.

O can ye sew cushions,
Or can ye sew sheets,
Or can ye sing balaloo
When the bairn greets?
And hee and baw birdie,
And hee and baw lamb,
And hee and baw birdie,
My bonnie wee lamb.

I placed my cradle
On yon holly top,
And ay as the wind blew
My cradle did rock.
And hush a baw birdie,
And balilee loo,
And hee and baw birdie
, My bonny wee doo.

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10. The Miller Of Dee (English, 18th century) [Men's Voices]

The Miller of Dee is an energetic masculine celebration of life, work, youth and making merry, ending in a toast to the king!

There was a jolly miller once,
Lived on the River Dee.
He danced and sang from morn till night,
No lark more blithe than he.
And this the burden of his song
Forever used to be:
‘I care for nobody, no, not I,
If nobody cares for me.’

I love my mill, she is to me
Both parent, child and wife.
I would not change my station
For another one in life.
Then push, push, push the bowl, my boys,
And pass it round to me;
The longer we sit here and drink,
The merrier we shall be.

Then like the miller bold and free
Let us rejoice and sing.
The days of youth were made for glee,
And time is on the wing.
This song shall pass from me to thee
Around this jovial ring:
Let heart and voice and all agree
To sing ‘Long live the King!’.

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11. Afton Water (Scottish) [SATB]

Afton Water tells of happy mutual love; a faithful couple live an idyllic rural life, accompanied by the sound of the sweetly-flowing river.

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise.
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far marked with the courses of clear winding rills.
There daily I wander as dawn rises high,
My flocks and my Mary’s sweet cot in my eye.

How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow!
There oft as mild evening creeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays.
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Robert Burns, 1759–96

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Songs by Britten, Elgar & Vaughan Williams

Benjamin Britten - Hymn to the Virgin (Boosey & Hawkes)

As young as he was, aged only 16, Britten produced in this carol a tiny masterpiece. This is one of the most well-known and best-loved of his choral pieces. Understandably so, too. It has all the ingredients which make for a really satisfying choral experience.

The use of a solo quartet or small semi-chorus, best placed at a distance, brings a dramatic element to the essential simplicity of the carol. The Latin responses of the semi-chorus to the medieval English words of the main chorus give these responses a further element of mystery which adds another layer of spiritual drama. The ratcheting up of the intensity in the final verse by increasing the tempo, by the ATB of the main chorus singing continuous rising phrases and by the sopranos singing a short phrase which is answered by the semi-chorus brings the piece to its climax.

The final tranquillo page leads the carol to its conclusion in a mesmerizingly beautiful final phrase sung by the semi-chorus.

Britten was a prolific juvenile composer: some 800 works and fragments precede his early published works. A Hymn To The Virgin, written in 1930 when Britten was just sixteen and while serving a spell in the school sanatorium, is the earliest surviving piece of church music written by the composer, and was one of his first compositions to attract wide attention.

Of one that is so fair and bright
    Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the day is light,
    Parens et puella:
I cry to thee, thou see to me,
Lady, pray thy Son for me
    Tam pia,
That I may come to thee.

All this world was forlorn
    Eva peccatrice,
Till our Lord was y-born
    De te genetrice.
With ave it went away
Darkest night, and comes the day
The well springeth out of thee.

Lady, flow’r of ev’rything,
    Rosa sine spina,
Thou bare Jesu, Heaven’s King,
    Gratia divina:
Of all thou bear’st the prize,
Lady, queen of paradise
Maid mild, mother es Effecta.

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Edward Elgar - My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land - Op. 18, No. 3 (OUP)

This song was written in 1889 for Tenbury Musical Society and was dedicated to the Rev. J Hampton, Warden of St Michael's College, Tenbury. The words were published in the Century Magazine. This song was the earliest Elgar partsong to be published (by Novello in 1890) and was subsequently catalogued in Opus 18 together with two songs which were individually published much later (Op 18/1 in 1896 and Op 18/2 in 1907).

My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land is a setting of a poem by Andrew Lang, which may well itself be an adaption of a much earlier Scottish poem. Elgar arranged it for an unaccompanied double choir and changes both the volume and the tempo to suit the word pictures of the tune. It is a testing and very dynamic piece that adds layer upon layer of complexity to achieve the effect Elgar desired.

My love dwelt in a northern land
[A tower dim]1 in a forest green
Was his, and far away the sand,
And gray wash of the waves [was]2 seen,
The woven forest boughs between.

And through the northern summer night
The sunset slowly died away,
And herds of strange deer, silver white,
Came gleaming through the forest gray,
And fled like ghosts before the day.

And oft, that month, we watch'd the moon
Wax great and white o'er wood and lawn,
And wane, with waning of the June,
Till, like a brand for battle drawn,
She fell, and flamed in a wild dawn.

I know not if the forest green
Still girdles round that castle gray,
I know not if, the boughs between,
The white deer vanish ere the day.
The grass above my love is green,
[My]4 heart is colder than the clay.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams - Valiant-for-Truth (OUP)

Ralph Vaughan Williams' Valiant-For-Truth is a motet for SATB with organ or piano introduction.

This short motet came at a time when the composer was writing music inspired by the wartime atmosphere in besieged England. It was immediately preceded by Six Choral Songs -- To Be Sung In Time of War and followed by the score to the war film, The 49th Parallel. But there is little that is warlike about this work. Indeed, its scoring alone, for unaccompanied mixed chorus with optional piano or organ, would hardly suggest a martial nature to its music. Neither would its text, taken from John Bunyan's Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, though, as most know, that story has a good-versus-evil theme.

After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-Truth was taken with a summons, and had this for a token that the summons was true, 'That his pitcher was broken at the fountain'. When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it.

Then said he, "I am going to my Father's, and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am.

My sword, I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill, to him that can get it.

My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me, that I have fought his battles, who now will be my rewarder.

When the day that he must go hence, was come, many accompanied him to the river side, into which, as he went, he said, "Death, where is thy sting?"

And as he went down deeper, he said, "Grave, where is thy victory?"

So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

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