When Vaughan Williams composed for the Women's Institute

A little-known work by Vaughan Williams was the first musical piece ever commissioned by the W.I.

It's always quite a treat to come across a work from the pen of Ralph Vaughan Williams which is not widely known or performed. And when I discovered that one such unknown piece was actually commissioned by the Womens' Institute - bored from singing Jerusalem, I suspect - I knew for certain this was going to be a discovery to relish.

The Folk Songs of the Four Seasons can be found on a recent album release from the Dutton Epoch label. It's a work that started life as a cantata for women's voices, bringing together two of Vaughan Williams' personal loves: his championing of amateur music making and his life-long fascination for English folk-song.

In 1949, the National Federation of Women's Institutes wanted to commission a work for a special occasion and Vaughan Williams was their first choice to write it. Composing a 'Folk-Song Cantata' enabled him to draw on his deep love and knowledge of English folk-song. He picked songs from his own collection, gathered more than 40 years earlier, as well as some discovered by friends such as Cecil Sharp and George Butterworth. Vaughan Williams clearly had a great time recalling these stirring tunes.

The first performance took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 15 June 1950, with the Women's Institute members - no less than 3,000 of them - singing away, joined by the LSO under Sir Adrian Boult. The composer's wife remembered that, 'the audience seemed far fewer than the performers'. 

Alas there's no recording, that anyone is aware of, of this massed choir of WI members. But in 1952, Vaughan Williams turned the cantata into an orchestral suite.

It opens with the lively 'To the Ploughboy' and the 'May Song', used to memorable effect by Vaughan Williams in his opera, Hugh the Drover. 'To the Green Meadow' and the harvest ballad, 'An Acre of Land', follow. Then 'The Sprig of Thyme' and the 'Lark in the Morning', a gracious folk-ballad (and we all know how much Vaughan Williams liked larks).

The suite ends in rumbustious style with 'The Cuckoo' and a 'Wassail Song' - a Gloucestershire drinking tune to encourage a good crop of corn next season. Let's hope so!