Part 1


A textcritical approach of the Elizabethan partsongs


A short introduction to this paper.

One of the most outstanding features of the human mind, is its strange incapability to accept – or even to recognize – the most obvious facts. That is to say: inconvenient facts.

Such an ostrich-like attitude is in general no help to improve knowledge. But this seems not always to be a disadvantage. As demonstrated in the case of that ancient historian, who once upon a time had to judge the truth in certain court gossip about the ancestry of his sovereign. It was only a couple of generations before his own time that some sceptical courtiers had suggested a young nobleman as the more likely father for the newborn Heir Apparent than the elderly King, who was senior to his Queen by quite a lot of decades. In the end this historian was able to produce two undeniable facts to refute this rumour as completely unfounded.

  • Fact One: the courtier in question was to the Queen a lifelong friend, from the
    day of her arrival at court onward.
  • Fact Two: the heir developed during childhood an everlasting hatred towards
    this same gentleman.

And as the historian brilliantly pointed out: things would have been exactly the other way round if this gentleman indeed had saved the dynasty from extinction. A conclusion that reveals a mind both working with scientific logic, and blessed with a deep insight in human psychology. This was in that age a rare combination of virtues, and therefore it was a remarkable achievement to combine these two unconnected observations to a single piece of evidence on the heir’s legitimacy. But once it was done, it appeared, as all sparks of genius, to be the summit of simplicity.

It learns the truth at first sight, just by taking facts at face value: To begin with; people cannot but love their natural parents. So, who would imagine an absolute monarch, his power and glory based solely on his descent, to be capable of hating the guts of the man supposed to have broken the chain of succession, if it had been true? And wouldn’t it be downright ridiculous to expect a man and a woman to remain friends for life if they indeed ever had produced a child together?

Even centuries after date it is hard to find some flaw in this line of reasoning. Explaining why nobody doubted the heir’s legitimacy ever after. His descendands continued to rule their country without a worry in the world, and if their dynasty is not extinct or overthrown, they still do this very day.

At least this historian had achieved that his findings could never be abused to cause a grave constitutional crisis.

Time has long since turned this powder keg into a harmless anecdote, fitting perfectly to the central theme of this article. But never ask me to reveal who was who. What can be gained from blackening a great queen’s reputation? As a rule, however, it is to a disastrous effect when experts submerge their heads in sand. Take for instance all those admiring comments on the short Elizabethan love song O Mistress Mine. The author being William Shakespeare himself is apparently all it takes to leave a dramatic collapse of quality – in only twelve lines – unmentioned. There is in fact as little poetry in the final triplet as there is clothing on an emperor in a certain tale by Andersen.

Yet, the title of OMM should be written in capitals. Its final chord might sound a little disappointing at first, but for those willing to accept this, there is a host of hidden extra’s in this song. Turning it into a box where sweets compacted lie.

The courage to bring Shakespeare down to one’s own level, is of course only to be found in another genius. As a result I had my own first taste of these sweets on a September evening in 2001, when the conductor of a Dutch chamber choir handed out twelve pages with choral music by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958):

Due to a barrage of spam, the comment option had to be disabled.

Serious replies will be copied to this page from the link below

enter a comment


Part One ; or, An Impossible Combination

Part Two ; or, Adults Only

Part Three ; or, Revolutionary Art


In 1913 Ralph Vaughan Williams published a small collection of short but charming pieces for mixed choir as:

“Three Elizabethan Part Songs”

This music never attracted too much attention, which is well illustrated by the fact there is, as far as I know, only one CD-recording of it available. The little impact of these songs’ release was not only because the Great War followed shortly after, they also seem to be nothing but a few unrelated pieces from the shelf, and very long stored pieces for that. The most recent composition, Sweet Day, is from 1896, the other two are dated 1891.

The website of the RVW Society dates the partsongs 1899 (previously 1898). I therefore can’t rely on the dates 1891 & 1896 in my cd-booklet to originate from  RVW himself. And without his co-operation my research is partly based on quicksand. Who can help me out?

In 1896 Vaughan Williams was (almost) 24 and yet the music in this three pieces points allready clearly towards the mature composer, a strong indication that at least two of them have been antedated. One of the purposes of this article is therefore to present all evidence that this collection of Elizabethan partsongs is in fact not so much Victorian as Edwardian. Redating this music however, is only a side-step. More important dates are hiding under its humble appearance. The songs might be modest in scale and number, and they might lack unity, yet the ‘cycle’ established by following three little songs deserves far better than to be regarded as a footnote in a composer’s life:

Sweet Day
– – – – – – – – – –
The Willow Song
– – – – – – – – – –
O Mistress Mine


Almost every single word in their scores needs a carefull look, if only to recognize the remarkable fact that in some cases even the shape of their letters is tale-telling. Such a look demands to reproduce at this spot the complete wordsequence. Which, as it happens, occurs to be less easy than one should expect; in spite of leaving out nothing but a few irrelevancies, this transcription from the 1995 Galliard-edition is all but complete:


Sweet Day

George Herbert————————————————-Ralph Vaughan Williams

Sweet day! so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
——-For thou must die.

Sweet spring! full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,
My music shows ye have your closes,
——-And all must die.  

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
——-Then chiefly lives.

Copyright 1913 by Stainer & Bell Ltd.


The Willow Song

Words from Shakespeare’s “Othello”————-Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
——-Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
——-Sing, willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
——-Sing, willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones;
——-Sing, willow, willow, willow:
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.

Copyright 1913 by Joseph Williams Limited.



William Shakespeare———————————————Ralph Vaughan Williams

O mistress mine! where are you roaming?
O! stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
—–That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
—–Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ‘t is not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
—–What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty,
—–Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Copyright 1913 Ralph Vaughan Williams assigned to Stainer & Bell Ltd.


Being of very different moods these texts are apparently an haphazard grasp from the highlights of English Literature. This makes them of course not very suitable to combine in a cycle, and the composer avoids in a very peculiar way to do so: the mid-section is published by a different company than the cornerparts. This outer pair sharing their publisher must of course not implicate any relation whatsoever, hence these parts differ not only in textwriter, but in copyright as well.

Such a strange reversal of the usual habits from authors, who normally place their different titles at the same publisher, and have no reason at all to tamper with their copyrights, strongly denies what a common title should stand for: unity. But the particular one heading all title pages is merely invented for the very purpose of a combined release. So Vaughan Williams now contradicts himself, or formulated by the letter: ‘the smallprint underneath each song reveals an extremely difficult way of doing things, achieving nothing in the process but a contradiction of what is written in capitals above.’ And if these minor additions to the original words are telling such a funny story, what will a close examination of the poems themselves reveal?

The prelude is written by George Herbert (1593-1633), and this fact is a first hint that the dating of this song might be unreliable: there is little reason to regard ‘Elizabethan’ as a proper time-indication to a text whose author was still looking forward to his tenth birthday when the immortal queen died. Apart from this, there is nothing strange about its appearance in a cycle of songs, for Sweet Day says halfway down:

My music shows ye have your closes

Yet, this line raises questions: according to the context it is evidently about our limited days (George Herbert was a clergyman). But the choise of words suggests some deeper ground; as to be expected from good poetry. And whatever it is, what lies under the obvious interpretation as:

‘My song foretells your ends’

must be something important, because the line does everything to attract attention. And not for its grammar only; I was never able to sing this at rehearsals without wondering why on earth it speaks of ‘my music’. It seems so fitting to a partsong, but Herbert never was a songwriter; all his religious poetry was first published after his death, and was in consequence during his lifetime unknown to any composer. Therefore this line deals with music that does not exist at all (when it finally dawned on me that poetry equals ‘spoken music’, this literal interpretation had already proved its value). It had to wait centuries before RVW did something about it. And even then not in full extend, for the second quatrain of the poem, originally published as Virtue, is missing.

Reducing Virtue to a part song Vaughan Williams focuses his music on words that in their turn place (the word) music central. This is an extremely difficult way to contradict oneself, because the reversion only works when it is obvious that the music‘s sole task is to carry its words. Therefore it is no surprise to find in the partsongs a textexpression as precise as in the standard setting music of Bach. The most obvious example of this imitative style, is the music to die slowly away on ‘die’, but it is also applied on the more obscure details. And even on the totally invisible one: Virtue’s textreduction from 16 to 12 lines is reflected in the choise of measure. Choises actually: in the end Sweet Day is still telling a complete story, and so the 3/4 beat is in the two final bars replaced by a 4/4.

A few paragraphs ago a reversion contradicted the unity heading each song in capitals, and now a reversion contradicts the text-expression that is written in capitals in every detail of the music. It makes one wonder. Especially as the second song also deals with the theme of approaching death. Leaving only the last piece, a lightfooted love song, on itself. In short ; RVW does everything within his power to keep his songs apart. But because he contradicts himself by all possible means, nothing can’t prevent the first two from flocking together :

Sweet Day
The Willow Song
– – – – – – – – – –
O Mistress Mine


Death is not the only connection between the rev. Herbert’s short(ened) sermon and one of the most famous tearjerkers in world literature. For The Song of Willow as it is immortalized by William Shakespeare suffered the loss of a few lines as well. The score’s source-indication emphasises strongly its origin as a folk song, in which quality it is still in existence; there is (or was) almost certainly a manuscript in RVW’s own hand in the composer’s private collection of traditional music. Still, this shortened and even incomplete version must be far better stuff than the original, for Vaughan Williams, chooses to use the

words from Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’

and reverses the ones Shakespeare used for a title. Again the score is in three-quarters and this time the words are cut down to size even twice. The song in which Desdemona unwittingly foretells her untimely end, peters out in confusion as she doesn’t remember it very well. This leaves Vaughan Williams little choise but to ignore the final four of Shakespeare’s 13 lines. Meanwhile Desdemona’s faulty memory in this rather long play is to be regarded as a blessing in disguise to both audience and pocket calculator; where the original version demands to sing 54 lines, the 1623 edition (the first complete works-edition, based on the lost original manuscripts) manages to have it printed in sixteen, some inserted dialogue included. This dialogue turns every single word in these sixteen lines into an integrated part of ‘Othello’s story, which is very much contrary to the original song; which is refrain almost throughout. And leaves it to a modest twelve lines to cover the story it is telling. Because of this increase of the story lines to sixteen, one might say that in reducing VirtueVaughan Williams exactly reverses the way Shakespeare deals with the Song of Willow. Pointing at the weeping willow’s roots as ‘words from Othello’ also brings the words to attention RVW omitted. These final lines reveal why the poor soul is flowing fresh tears by the stream. And as causes are always preceding results, we are facing a reversion once again; of chronology this time. The cause, by the way, is love. So a common main subject now unites both Shakespeare-texts against Herbert’s view on mortality.

In short ; Sweet Day and The Willow Song share the theme of approaching death, and a reduction by four lines. They also have both their share of reversions, and reducing Virtue from 16 to 12 lines RVW reverses Shakespeare’s expansion of The song of Willow by four story-lines. But the songs differ by subject, and this unites The Willow Song with O Mistress Mine :

Sweet Day
– – – – – – – – – –
The Willow Song
O Mistress Mine


The postlude is measured like its two predecessors, but this time the number of lines offers no visible reason for it; with twelve O Mistress Mine is in itself complete. The only thing missing in the score is a proper source-indication. If this is a hint, it is an enigmatic one, for ‘William Shakespeare’ is simply insufficient to find out that this text is absolutely not in itself; it is in the play ‘Twelfth-Night, or; what you will’. And this mere fact is enough to alter the numbers:

By good fortune the song’s original theatre music has survived. Interestingly, its most striking feature is the way it spoils things. There is only one explanation why Shakespeare should have allowed his composer Thomas Morley (1557-1603), to ruin the poems’ superb structure by repeating four of its lines: it informed the audience the play features sixteen of them.

There is no hard evidence to link Morley’s music to the play’s first performance, but it is a plausible option.
The original source for both Shakespeare and Morley is a now lost song that was popular enough to deserve it a four part instrumental setting in Morley’s 1599 First Book of Consort LessonsBeing the sole source of the melody, this setting of a song of sixteen lost lines is adapted to fit Shakespeare’s text from ca. 1600, whenever it is to be sung on its original tune.
This approach invariably results in a song with the modest instrumental accompaniment that is within the range of the small band of musicians that could be expected on a commercial theatre company ’s payroll. While the singer has apart from the period’s usual independency of his line no great technical challenges to face. Which is consistent with a performance by an actor with good singing qualities like Robert Armin: the song’s original performer.
Against Morley as Twelfth-Night’s composer speaks the almost complete loss of the play’s other music; only its final song “The Winde and The Raine” has come to us in a contemporary setting. An anonymous one, and OMM was its only song to make it into Morley’s consort book. Especially the omission of “Come away, death” is disappointing. Perhaps this text was written as late as 1600, but if Morley had been Shakespeare’s composer, the song should be expected to have entered the book’s second edition (1616), because its poetry is of the same exceptional class as OMM. 

The new music on OMM is written without a single repeated line, a shortcoming well suited to explain yet another choise for a 3/4-measure. As mentioned; Vaughan Williams follows the text in every detail: on the word ‘trip’ the song even turns into a dance, and the forwarded begin of the melody in the top voice on ‘yourneys’ paints the loneliness before the lovers find each other. Details making his peculiar way to deal with the first line to seem even more inapt:

O mistress mine! where are you roaming?

This line is written on a very popular theme in love-poetry: the unattainable lady (here quite literally a lady keeping her distance). Therefore, as all singers know, it should be accentuated like this:

mistress mine, where are you roaming?

And if the only traced CD-recording is a representative test sample, they act accordingly. Not because the composer encourages them however. Unlike Morley’s setting, his score completely fails to support these natural accents: the mistress, the song’s principal subject, is carefully stowed away in an upbeat, and ‘where’ sounds on the second crotchet of a 3/4-bar. There are very few positions less suitable to stress these words musically. But judged by the precision in which the other 32 lines of the partsongs are handled, a moment of distraction is as likely as a white Christmas in hell. Hence; Vaughan Williams is telling us not even to try. And if this instruction should need any explanation; the second triplet produces an excellent one:

Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
—–Every wise man’s son doth know. 

The singer, who happens to be the play’s clown (throughout the dialogue consistently pronounced as ‘fool’), has got only twelve different lines to express his love. But he not only dedicates one to provide her with information everybody knows, he subsequently informs her in yet another line about that particular fact as well: just to bring the message home to her. Because the limited size of the poem does not allow to waste a single word, logic says this mistress must really be in need of the information. Which implicates she must still be unaware of the fact that the search for a lover is finished at the very moment the spark jumps over.

To the fool’s misfortune there is only one way to find out on her ignorance, turning his song into a great fooling of the audience. It now appears the true love is not troubled because she is hard to win, but because it is far too easy!  And the singer does not ask her where she is, but what she is dóing there. A reproach sounding like this:

o mistress MINE! where are you ROAming?

Turning a three part metrical foot into a four part one, these stresses happen to correspond exactly with this partsong’s musical accents. By which means RVW establishes all unity needed to make these songs a real cycle: In TWS (no. 2) the poor soul repents her lack of virtue apparently shortly after it is reduced (no. 1). Her four lines on the resulting marital problems are not omitted, but replaced by the words of her true love. (no. 3).

In short ; RVW doesn’t reduce O Mistress Mine by four lines, but he omits in his music the four line repetitions from the song’s original theatre music by Thomas Morley. The textexpression is very accurate, but in the opening line in disagreement with the obvious interpretation. This forces a three part meter into a four part one, and reverses the theme of the unattainable lady. In the process uniting the cycle in a coherent story :

Sweet Day
The Willow Song
O Mistress Mine


Amazing, isn’t it? three stand-alone poems that are interlocking like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. But was this achieved according some plan or just by blind chance? If such a complicated interaction requires planning in advance, the unavoidable conclusion must be that the most recent one:

Virtue is especially designed for the purpose.

This in turn would implicate that Vaughan Williams was the first to assemble from different times, sources and authors, an existing cycle of poetry. Doing so according a never revealed but rather complicated procedure dating from over two-and-a-half centuries before he was born.

It seems a ridiculous thought, but on this level of interaction a co-incidence seems no better option. So, without giving the matter a further thought,  this article was originally based on the presupposition that Vaughan Williams did some excellent research. A lack of judgement causing me a very unpleasant moment when, long after I had completed my analysis, I had the misfortune to attend a life performance of some of Copland’s ‘Old American Songs’.

While listening, I realised to my horror the selected five songs from Copland’s ten independent traditionals are placed in the only possible order that makes them almost as close knit as the three partsongs. In respect of unity the somewhat lower level of interaction is roughly compensated by the almost double number of lucky winners. Resulting in a serious threath to the very foundation of my reasoning; the certainty of Virtue to be reduced in precise accordance to its author’s intentions.

To provide the sequel of this article with a sound base, the slightest whiff of a co-incidence has to be ruled out. Which brings us in the end back to my first introduction of these partsongs. Stranger things might have happened than Herbert unwittingly enabling Virtue to be reduced in a distant future, creating in the process this perfect combination with two independent poems, written two decades earlier and years apart. But such a chance to occur twice is all it needs to make pigs fly:

Most sources agree on the three partsongs as to be composed independently from each other, two decades before they were first combined. Yet the texts were placed on music in their original chronology, with a five years interval between both Shakespeare settings and the Herbert. 

Five years is half (1/2) a decade; the reversal of two (2/1) decades. Because the closing part of this article will show the musical composition to copy this rather unique regrouping from three stand-alone songtexts to an unity – via a couple preceding a single, followed by a single preceding a couple – one should better not dice for money against Ralph Vaughan Williams. But we can at least rely on what he has written in capitals over three songtitles. In reversed order that is:


Due to a barrage of spam, the comment option had to be disabled.

Serious replies will be copied to this page from the link below

enter a comment


a challenge to the reader

Turning this music into an ‘Elizabethan Song in Three Parts’ is only a dull but necessary procedure to prepare the ground for the second part of this triplet which is headed: ‘Adults Only’. Before moving on to “The Art of Ralph Vaughan Williams-Part 2”, all puzzle-enthousiasts amongst my audience are invited to explain its title from the structure of O Mistress Mine. Please keep in mind that ‘structure’ is about the poem’s construction; so study its design rather than its text. Which contains several matching words anyway. There is no reward but the challenge of testing your analytic powers on the visual crack in the most tricky crossword from four centuries.

As a preparation, less difficult alternative, or maybe just as a hint, I recommend you to find out what exactly unites the seemingly haphazard selection from Copland’s ten ‘Old American Songs’. You are welcome to post your solution to this problem, but why should you bother? There is no reward.

FIVE OLD AMERICAN SONGS; a cycle taken from Aaron Copland

. . . . . . . . I
The Boatmen’s dance

Minstrel Song – 1848

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

The boatmen dance, the boatmen sing,
The boatmen up to everything.
And when the boatmen gets on shore,
He spends his cash and works for more.
Then dance the boatmen dance,
O dance all night ‘til broad daylight
And go home with the gals in the mornin’.

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

I went on board the other day
To see what the boatmen had to say.
Then I let my passion loose,
And they cram me in the callaboose.
O dance the boatmen dance,
O dance all night ‘til broad daylight
And go home with the gals in the mornin’.

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

The boatman is a thrifty man,
There’s none can do as the boatman can.
I never see a pretty gal in my life,
But that she was a boatman’s wife.
O dance the boatmen dance,
O dance all night ‘til broad daylight
And go home with the gals in the mornin’.

High row the boatmen row,
Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

. . . . . . . . II
The little horses

Hush you bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses.

Blacks and bays, dapples and grays,
Coach and sixa little horses.–

Hush you bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you’ll have sweet cake
And all the pretty little horses.

A brown and a gray and a black and a bay
Coach and sixa little horses.

Hush you bye, don’t you cry,
Oh you pretty little baby.
Go to sleepy little baby,
Oh you pretty little baby.

. . . . . . . . III
Zion’s walls
revivalist song

Come fathers and mothers,
Come sisters and brothers, come.
Join us in singing the praises of Zion.

O fathers don’t you feel determined
To meet within the walls of Zion,
We’ll shout and go round the walls of Zion.

. . . . . . . . IV
At the river
Hymn tune

Shall we gather by the river,
Where bright angelfeet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God.

Yes we’ll gather by the river,
The beautifull, the beautifull river.
Gather with the saints by the river
That flows by the throne of God.

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease.
Soon our happy harts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

Yes we’ll gather by the river,
The beautifull, the beautifull river.
Gather with the saints by the river
That flows by the throne of God.

. . . . . . . . V
Ching-a-ring chaw
Minstrel song

Ching-a-ring-a-ring ching ching,
Hoa ding-a-ding kum larkee,
Ching-a-ring-a-ring ching ching,
Hoa ding kum larkee.

Brothers gather round,
Listen to the story,
‘Bout the promised land,
An’ the promised glory.

You don’ need to fear,
If you have no money,
You don’ need  none there,
To buy you milk and honey.

There you’ll ride in style,
Coach with four white horses,
There you’re evenin’ meal,
Has one two three four courses.

Ching-a-ring-a-ring ching ching,
Hoa ding-a-ding kum larkee,
Ching-a-ring-a-ring ching ching,
Hoa ding kum larkee.

Nights we all will dance,
To the harp and fiddle,
Waltz and jigg and prance,
“Cast down on the middle.

“When the mornin’ comes,
All with grand and splendor,
Stand out in the sun,
And hear the holy thunder.

Brothers hear me out,
The Promised Land is comin’,
Dance and sing and shout,
I hear them harps astrummin’.

Ching-a-ring ching ching,
Ching-a-ring ching ching,
Ching-a-ring-a, ching-a-ring-a
Ring ching ching ching chaw.

Part 2 ; or Adults Only