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Collegium Regale - The Choral Scholars of King's College, Cambridge


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The tradition of people singing about their experiences in work songs, love songs and spiritual songs is common all over the world. The words and music of each particular song, however, reflect the cultural and historical circumstances of its time and place. This disc presents a selection, widespread but by no means comprehensive, of folksongs of different sorts from many different places.

A significant proportion of songs from the British Isles are love songs, whether cheerful (Dashing away with the smoothing iron), more philosophical (O Waly Waly), or just morbid (Molly Malone). Many New World songs, such as Shenandoah and Botany Bay, reflect colonial circumstances, although the latter was as popular in England as in Australia in the 19th century, and indeed the version in common use was written for an English music hall production in 1885. Spirituals and hymns also often have folk origins. From France and Germany have come several Christmas songs, some of which have entered the international repertoire, such as Il est né le divin enfant. The Negro Spiritual, of which many examples occur on this disc, owes its origin to the slave trade. Black African slaves in the south of the United States turned to religion for solace, which generated a huge number of beautiful spiritual songs speaking of deliverance from their situation by freedom or death.

From a musical point of view, influences are multifarious. The Western European Classical tradition has a strong influence on melodies, although in parts of Eastern Europe this was leavened by polyphonic Orthodox Church chants. The Negro Spiritual took influences from Africa, as well as church hymn-singing (which was in turn influenced by Western Europe). Then there are local influences: Il est né is based on a royal hunting-call of Louis XV. Many songs from different parts of England are very similar in words and music: often, there are many different versions of the same song.

We owe our knowledge of many of these songs to a number of musicians and others who went about their countries collecting songs in the years around 1900. In England, the English Folk Dance and Song Society, whose leaders included Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp, collected and recorded many songs. Vaughan Williams wrote arrangements of many of these songs, including The turtle dove. Other collectors and arrangers of folksongs in this period included Percy Grainger, whose famous arrangement of Brigg fair is included on this disc, and Gustav Holst, arranger of My sweetheart's like Venus. Elsewhere in Europe, concerted efforts of a similar nature were made by Béla Bartók and Mátyás Seiber in Hungary, and also more sporadically in Russia, France and elsewhere. In many cases, folk traditions influence classical composers in return. Vaughan Williams, Michael Tippett, Aaron Copland and Antonín Dvorák (in his New World Symphony) all used melodies from the folk tradition. Also, folk inflections and instruments appear throughout classical music, and the melodies and harmonies often define elements of nationalist music. Similarly, the spiritual tradition was very important in the development of other genres, such as gospel and jazz.

The collection and dissemination of these songs occurred just before the increasing homogenisation of culture and music threatened many of the distinctive traditions from which they came. Thankfully, the work of these composers and the inspiration they give to subsequent generations who might otherwise have been ignorant of the folk tradition, has ensured its lasting legacy.

Keith Roberts



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