John Gardner's setting of a 16th century Cornish song entranced a generation of girls. His death earlier this month may bring a revival of his worksby Joy Lo Dico / December 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
John Gardner’s carol has entered the repertoire of King’s College choir
Girls from St Paul’s Girls’ School have a reputation, particularly among the boys who used to try step out with them, for being fiercely academic and unapproachable. But there is one way to make almost any pupil from this elite west London school to melt a little—to hammer out the opening chords of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.”
The words are taken from a 16th-century Cornish folk song, the music is a simple driving rhythm on a piano composed by John Gardner, music director of the school, as a carol for its choir in the 1960s. “It’s sort of medieval Dave Brubeck,” says Sally Bradshaw, one of his pupils and now a professional singer. “The Germans call it Ohrwurm—ear worm—a tune that you can’t get out of your head.”
Though you are unlikely to hear it from the pavement carol singers, “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” has now entered the repertoire of choirs across the world, including that of King’s College Cambridge for their Christmas Eve service. Their rendition is available on YouTube, but the boys offer a rather buttoned-up version of it. This song really belongs to 600 school girls yearning for their first taste of love.
It’s a beautiful modern-sounding carol, but it took a curious journey to get into the St Paul’s hymnal. The words to the song were included in William Sandys’s Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, published in 1833 well-timed for the Victorians’ revival of the Christmas festival.
However the song was less of a carol and more likely part of another vernacular religious tradition, that of the mystery play. That’s implied in the first verse “the legend of my play”:
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I would my true love did so chance To see the legend of my play, To call my true love to my dance
The song is an exhortation to join together with Christ as the lover or bridegroom calling his people to join him in a rapture, akin to better known songs like “Lord of the Dance.” The original—14 verses long—goes on to tell the story of Christ being born, crucified and resurrected, with a few anti-Semitic slights along the way.
It found its way to St Paul’s through Holst. While musical director at the school during the First World War, Holst visited and fell…