Vaughan Williams’ lifetime interest in ‘Kingsfold’

This short article by Philip Wilby is the first in a series of items issued to the Leeds Organists’ Association during this period when we are unable to hold normal monthly meetings due to the national quarantine.

Our March meeting was destined to discuss my new score ‘An English Passion’, which would have been performed in Leeds and Ripon Cathedrals on the weekend of Passion Sunday. These performances have been postponed for 12 months. The work, which has now been published by the RSCM, is a new setting of St Matthew’s gospel narrative set against an English background, and involving traditional hymn tunes set to new words by Richard Cooper. The first of these is set to the folksong melody ‘Kingsfold’ which Vaughan Williams collected in 1893 and included in his 1906 publication The English Hymnal to the words ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’.

Kingsfold_large.png

Norman Harper (father of Tim Harper of Ripon Cathedral) has recently published a beautiful chorale prelude for organ with Fagus Music.

As was his usual practice, RVW notated the melody in his manuscript book, including a separate stave for any variants. Here is a copy of that original.

Kingsfold_manuscript_large.png

Vaughan Williams first encountered ‘Kingsfold’ when he was 21, and described the effect thus:

‘I had the sense of recognition- Here’s something I had known all my life, only I didn’t know it.’

He named the melody after the village in which it was collected.

I am indebted to Tim Gray for pointing out that in 1958, the tune was included in the Musical Commemoration at the composer’s funeral in Westminster Abbey. Michael Kennedy describes the occasion thus:


Into the silence of the Abbey came the first notes of ‘Dives and Lazarus’.
It was as if Vaughan Williams himself has spoken. The tune (Kingsfold) which he had loved all his life, which came from the soil of England, ageless and anonymous, which he had used in so many of his compositions, was the perfect choice to create a mood of remembrance which will haunt those who experienced it to the end of their days.


For those who wish to hear it, there is a beautiful recording of his score for strings and harp, complete with musical notation, on Youtube.

Philip Wilby March 2020