There’s a running joke in our band about the piece by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, English Folk Song Suite. It’s no walk in the park to play (we are a “Grade 3” standard band and this piece really pushes us at a "Grade 4"), but it is an absolute ripper when we get it right. Some in the band love it (it reminds them of school band days) and others loath it (generally upper woodwind players who get a real wallopping in the first movement). But I am determined that we keep it in our set.
Well, firstly it’s by an English composer, and not only that, a composer who rated and respected the legitimacy of the ‘military band’ in English musical culture. (Concert bands are essentially civilian incarnations of military bands). Secondly, Vaughan-Williams wrote this piece specifically for a military band. That makes it an iconic member of concert band literature, performed by bands across the world.
(If you hear this played on Classic FM, you’re more likely to hear the Symphony Orchestra version, but the military/concert band version is the original, composed in 1923).
More often than not, you will hear your local community concert band play arrangements of your favourite pop or film tunes, and while we love playing those, there is something special in performing music that is intentionally written to feature the sounds of your instruments, for their own sake.
Vaughan-Williams is no minor member of the composers' alumni. He is one of the most eminent English composers in history. He studied with noted contemporaries of the late-romantic/early 20th Century period both in the UK and on the continent, and had a great friendship with Gustav Holst. He obviously cared deeply for the folk traditions of the British Isles, and travelled to the countryside collecting folk songs and carols so they could be preserved for future generations.
And so it is that this piece has protected within its movements English folk songs (see what he did there?), arranged to feature with the wind and brass instruments of a military band/concert band.
I’d encourage any musician who has played the English Folk Song Suite to seek out recordings and performances of the original tunes. It helps to broaden the scope of our understanding of the Suite. I wonder what folk musicians and the average person of the time would have thought hearing the piece performed at the town bandstand on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Having not long been out the other side of The Great War, did it stir patriotic fervour, or nostalgia for a simpler time, pre1914?
If you find versions of the folk tunes you particularly like, please post them in the comments.
I wanted to find a good recording by an English concert band to include here, but it was a bit tricky finding performances online by English bands. However, many bands in America and Asia are performing the suite.
It is my aim as a musical director of a community concert band, to keep our repertoire broad and to embrace the literature for the Concert Band/ Wind Ensemble. So, for now the Suite stays. That’s not to say we’re ditching our arrangement of Toto’s Africa anytime soon!
https://rvwsociety.com/short-biography/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Folk_Song_Suite (Cover photo taken by me in Knaresborough, Yorkshire.)