Five Songs of Symmetry

Somewhere in the nineteenth century, the Grimm brothers set out to put Germany’s heritage of old folk stories on record, that untill then had been passed down the generations by word of mouth. The result was a still popular book, that has prevented many a classic from dropping out of our collective memory. The brothers were just in time: the disappearance of the story telling tradition is not to be blamed on the rise of radio broadcasting and television, but on the disintergration of traditional society as a result of the industrial revolution. A gradual process of social and cultural unrooting from mankind out of the soil of the eighteenth century, that was at its end merely accelerated by some new ways of entertainment. By the time that traditional story telling was in a state uncanningly alike the one that polar ice, and the bear that goes with it, are in today (not yet beyond rescue, but we have to act without delay), the Grimm example got a worldwide follow up. Not just for the preservation of folk stories, but of folk songs as well. And they were not the least of their profession who travelled across their countries to preserve their musical heritage: in Hungary, for instance, it was Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), who could compose a rather good song of his own.

In England it was Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), in his time regarded as the country’s leading composer, to take up the task. It may have been done at the cost of a couple of symphonies, but from December 1903 onward, he wrote down some eight hundred songs, recorded from the mouth of the last and rapidly dwindling generation that stood in the tradition. A part of his collection he adapted for performance by choir. “Five English Folksongs” was first published in 1913, when the work was largely done. The five songs selected for this particular cycle, however, are not merely for their charm selected to celebrate the completion of the project in a choral setting. The sequence of texts constitutes a coherent unity.

“Five English Folksongs” is a cycle of four love songs, with a coda on the ancient English tradition of helping the poor through the Christmas period. In this Wassail Song, ‘wassail’ stems from ‘wess hael’ (on your health), and means ‘drinking session’. It is traditionally sung by the poor when proceding from one house to another with a modest sized cup, and the ‘wassail’ at the beginning is both begging call and the traditional name for the booze donated. This coda, as we in due time will recognize, is far closer related to the previous love songs than one might expect from a time honoured christmas tradition. So let us have a look at the opening text. A song on Shakespeare’s immortal observation that yourneys end in lovers meeting:

The Dark Eyed Sailor

It was a comely young lady fair,
Was walking out for to take the air,
She met a sailor all on her way,
So I paid attention to what they did say.

Said William, ‘Lady, why walk alone?
The night is coming and the day neare gone.’
She said, while tears from her eye did fall,
‘It’s a dark-eyed sailor that’s proving my downfall.

It’s two long years since he left the land;
He took a gold ring from of my hand,
We broke the token, here’s part with me,
And the other lies rolling at the bottom of the sea.’

Then half the ring did young William show,
She was distracted midst joy and woe.
‘O welcome, William, I’ve lands and gold
For my dark-eyed sailor so manly, true and bold.’

Then in a village down by the sea,
They joined in wedlock and well agree.
So maids be true while your love’s away,
For a cloudy morning brings forth a shining day.

Apparently a rather straightforward story about the reunion of a fair lady with her beloved sailor, who she believed death. But two lines deserve a closer look: the ones of the fourth verse in which the lady offers the sailor land and gold. The donated booze of the final song is in comparision less of a sacrifice, but the intention is the same. And this connects the love of the fair lady for her William to the spirit of christmas by means of charity. But in search for overall unity we find the next song refusing to fit in on this theme. It is clearly out of season to begin with:

The Spring Time of the Year

As I walked out one morning,
In the springtime of the year,
I overheard a sailor boy,
Likewise a lady fair.
They sang a song together,
Made the valleys for to ring,
While the birds on spray
And the meadows gay
Proclaimed the lovely spring.

The lovers, however, are the very ones I overheard in the previous song, and this time they are singing. Just as the beggars will do in the coda. This singing also features in next song, but this time there is a change of perspective, as there is nobody around to overhear our lovers:

 Just as the Tide was Flowing

One morning in the month of May,
Down by some rolling river,
A jolly sailor, I did stray,
When I beheld my lover.
She carelessly along did stray,
A-picking of the daisies gay;
And sweetly sang her roundelay,
Just as the tide was flowing.

O! her dress it was so white as milk,
And jewels did adorn her.
Her shoes were made of the crimson silk,
Just like some lady of honour.
Her cheeks were red, her eyes were brown,
Her hair in ringlets hanging down;
She’d a lovely brow, without a frown.
Just as the tide was flowing.

I made a bow and said; ‘Fair maid,
How came you here so early?
My heart, by you it is betray’d
For I do love you dearly.
I am a sailor come from sea,
If you will accept of my company
To walk and view the fishes play.’
Just as the tide was flowing.

No more we said, but on our way
We’d gang along together,
The small birds sang, and the lambs did play,
And pleasant was the weather.
When we were weary we did sit down
Beneath a tree with branches round;
For my true love at last I’d found,
Just as the tide was flowing.

Again journeys end in lovers meeting, and, judged by their descriptions, they are the very lovers of the opening song, only this time at the earlier occasion of breaking a ring of gold. As we know, he is to sail shortly afterwards, and will not return for a long time. Long enough in any case to be assumed dead:

The Lover’s Ghost

Well met, well met my own true love;
Long time I have been absent from thee,
I am lately come from the salt sea,
And ’tis all for the sake, my love, of thee.

I have three ships all on the salt sea,
And one of them has brought me to land,
I’ve four and twenty mariners on board,
You shall have music at your command.

The ship wherein my love shall sail
Is glorious for to behold,
The sails shall be of shining silk,
The mast shall be of the fine beaten gold.

I might have had a King’s daughter,
And fain she would have married me,
But I forsook her crown of gold,
And ’tis all for the sake, my love, of thee.

In the sequence of this four songs we now find both unity and symmetry. Which should be basic features of any song cycle anyway, as one can learn from both Schubert’s masterpieces in this field: Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin. And even from RVW’s miscellanious set of Three Elizabethan Part Songs, if one takes the trouble to read parts two & three of The Art of Ralph Vaughan Williams. This time the lay-out is in comparision with that elusive composition rather straightforward: unity is established by the sailor boy, who for the sake of symmetry is presumably dead in both opening and closing song. His love is arranged with re-union on the corner parts, and union in the centre. Symmetry is a specific type of balance, but the sequence shows the general type as well, in a way that involves development: Before the symmetry axis the storyteller is an outsider, afterwards it is the sailor boy himself. The outsider restricts him-/herself to reporting on what (s)he heard and saw, the sailor boy follows up with a description of the lady, his courting , and her response. He concludes with adressing her directly, to return her favours to the dark-eyed sailor. Which charity results in this composition scheme:

story                communi-                lover                <—charity—>                lover             teller                  cation                        I                          season                         II                                            between                                            <—destiny—>                                                                 lovers

out-                  dialogue                  sailor             <—land & gold—-       fair              sider                                                   boy                 —-landbound—->           lady

out-                     duet                      sailor                       spring*                      fair
sider                                                   boy                                                            lady

symmetry axis
symmetry axis

sailor             monologue               sailor                       spring                       fair
boy                                                     boy                                                            lady

sailor             monologue               sailor               —-ship & music—>         fair
boy                                                     boy                  <—seabound—-              lady


the econo-            <———– matter (spiritual refreshments) ————                 mically       monologue       the ec. chall.              midwinter**        the ec. strong
challenged                ———– spirit (God’s blessing with matter) ———->

story                communi-                lover                <—charity—>                lover             teller                  cation                        I                          season                         II                                            between                                            <—destiny—>                                                                 lovers

*    the season of love
**  high tide of God’s love = God gives us his son

The coda hides yet another contrast: while the pre-christian Old Testament of the Holy Bible teaches us that the just (Abraham, Isaac, Job) receive the blessing of God in the form of earthly treasure (Pray God send our master a good…), the christian sequel revolves around the message that wealth isn’t everything at all. And this little Christmas song therefore doesn’t fail to bring one of the sharper edges of the Messiah’s gospel unobtrusively to the attention of the possessing class.

Whoever has ears, let them hear:

Wassail Song

Wassail, Wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown:
Our bowl it is made of the green maple tree;
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Here’s a health to the ox and to his right eye,
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie,
A good Christmas pie as e’er I did see.
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Here’s a health to the ox and to his right horn,
Pray God send our master a good crop of corn,
A good crop of corn as e’er I did see.
 In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Here’s a health to the ox and to his long tail,
Pray God send our master a good cask of ale,
A good cask of ale as e’er I did see.
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best;
Then I pray that your soul in heaven may rest;
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small,
May the devil take butler, bowl and all!

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock,
Who tripp’d to the door and slipp’d back the lock;
Who tripp’d to the door and slipp’d back the pin,
For to let these jolly Wassailers walk in.

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