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Classical 101

Classical 101 Holiday Special: An English Pastorale

Max Pixel

What I'm calling An English Pastorale is an hour of music I've selected that I hope will suit the mood of the holiday season without sticking exclusively to Christmas music. Think of it as a brief break from some of the familiar carols and tunes we hear so much this time of year.

An English Pastorale airs at 7 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 24 and 2 p.m. Monday, Dec. 25 on Classical 101.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' orchestral Fantasia on Greensleeves was written for his Shakespeare-inspired opera Sir John in Love, and is based on a traditional English folk tune that was well-known by Tudor and Elizabethan times. It has been associated with Christmas at least since 1685 — although the best-known Christmas setting is from the 19th century: "What Child is This?" by William Chatterton Dix.

Also by Vaughan Williams, but not quite as well known, is Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, scored for strings and harp. It was composed for the New York Philharmonic and Adrian Boult to perform at the 1939 World's Fair. It's based on an old folk song with a Biblical setting and has also been associated with Christmas.


William Walton made arrangements of music by Johann Sebastian Bach for a 1940 ballet called The Wise Virgins. The title comes from the Biblical story of the wise and foolish virgins in the New Testament. The suite from the ballet uses music from Bach cantatas in Walton's settings, with the most famous being the lovely Sheep May Safely Graze.

Gustav Holst wrote his St. Paul's Suite in 1913 for his young students at St. Paul's Girls' School in London, where he taught and was the music director for nearly 30 years. The rousing opening jig may not particularly evoke the holiday season, but in the final movement two English folk songs make an appearance, including Greensleeves.


While not Christmas or holiday music specifically, short lute pieces by late Renaissance composer John Dowland, as played by renowned lutenist Paul O'Dette, make an enjoyable bridge between some of the orchestral pieces included in An English Pastorale.

Join me for An English Pastorale at 7 a.m. Christmas Eve and 2 p.m. Christmas Day on Classical 101.