Vaughan Williams died before he could finish what was originally conceived as a nativity play, but left sufficient sketches for his amanuensis to flesh out the remainder.
The First Nowell is characteristic of Vaughan Williams’s love of traditional English music, telling the Christmas story through carols.
Born to a Gloucestershire vicar in 1842, Ralph Vaughan Williams grew up in the Surrey hills after his father died. He was taught music from an early age, studied at Charterhouse and the Royal College of Music and then read music and history at Cambridge.
The composer’s friends included Bertrand Russell, Hubert Parry and Gustav Holst, and he studied in Paris for a time under Maurice Ravel, though retaining throughout his ‘essence of Englishness’. He was among the first in the early 1900’s who realised that traditional English hymns and carols were being lost as oral heritage gave way to printed music, so devoted time to travelling the countryside to collect and transcribe what he could.
Vaughan Williams died in 1958 leaving an extensive musical legacy. “Hardly a musical genre was untouched or failed to be enriched by his work, which included nine symphonies, five operas, film music, ballet and stage music, several song cycles, church music and works for chorus and orchestra” (The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society)