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Lost Chords: Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams had been interested in folk music since he was a boy. In December 1903, he noted down the tune of Bushes and Briars from a 70 year-old labourer who lived in the Essex village of Ingrave. Over the next ten years he collected more than 800 songs, and they had a profound effect on his development as a composer. Particularly significant was a week long visit to King’s Lynn in 1905, during which he collected some 30 songs. One was The Captain’s Apprentice as sung by the fisherman James Carter. This melody was used in the Norfolk Rhapsody No 1, the Sea Symphony and the Pastoral Symphony. Another was Ward the Pirate, used as a theme in both the first and second Rhapsodies.

After the visit, Vaughan Williams began to plan a full-scale folk-song symphony. Although such a symphony was never published, he did complete the three Norfolk Rhapsodies in 1905 and 1906, and these were originally planned as the separate movements of the symphony: No. 1 was to have been the first movement, No. 2 the slow movement and scherzo, and No.3 the finale, a march and trio using four folk tunes for its themes. All three of the Rhapsodies were performed during those years and reviewed in the press. But in 1914 the first was heavily revised and the remaining two withdrawn from publication. Two pages of the second Rhapsody and the whole score of the third went missing.

A few years ago I proposed a series of radio documentaries called “Lost Chords” to the BBC, but despite interest and support from some internal producers at Radio 3 they weren’t in the end accepted by the commissioning committee. My plan for the Norfolk Symphony programme was to takes a look at what might have become Vaughan Williams’ first symphony, using evidence from the composer’s scrapbook of folk song material, from contemporary letters, programme notes and concert reviews. I hoped to follow the trail of the King’s Lynn trip – something that folk singer Chris Coe and others have already done – and trace the subsequent use of the material he collected in his music. The picture above shows King’s Lynn as painted by local artist Walter Dexter (1876-1958).

Since then, the Norfolk Rhapsody No 2 has re-surfaced, edited and completed by Stephen Hogger and recorded by the late Richard Hickox. It’s more than possible that the third movement will also be re-discovered one day, giving us a clearer picture of how the complete symphony might have sounded. Meanwhile, fragments remain of the source material. For instance, Vaughan Williams made arrangements with piano accompaniment of a number of the folk songs, including The Captain’s Apprentice and Ward the Pirate, and seven of the field recordings he made in King’s Lynn have survived.

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