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
Published in January 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 for the village of Thaxted in Essex and befriended the local vicar Conrad Noel, known as the “Red Vicar” for his radical socialist leanings—no secret as he flew a red flag over his church. Noel had been given the lyrics of “Tomorrow” by a friend, and taken by their folksiness and their call to worship through dance, pinned them on the inside of the church door. Holst read them and took it upon himself to compose the music, an intense cascading choral work, which is known as “This Have I Done For My True Love.”
It was occasionally performed at St Paul’s but when Gardner arrived he thought he might give it a reworking. He was part-time musical director from 1962 from 1975, a helpful additional income for a composer, and there was no indignity in following on from Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells in the music department. Gardner was also the only male teacher at the school, and had no trouble keeping the girls’ attention, though as much for his ability to teach as his rugged looks. “The idea of not watching your conductor is unthinkable to anyone who has played or sung under John Gardner’s direction,” says Adrienne Carr, née Pickering, a cellist. “If you didn’t the ensuing roar was fairly terrifying and everyone just did watch because JG was the source of the music, the score was not.”
He wrote half a dozen of pieces for the school, including a jaunty version of “The Holly and the Ivy.” He was very casual about “Tomorrow.” “I wrote it for the girls to sing there,” he said in an interview once, “and I remember that I almost made it up when I was conducting a choir there.” Gardner’s version stuck to just the first three verses of the Cornish song—no anti-Semitic comments in them—and produced a piece just two and a half minutes long but very intense.
At St Paul’s, every girl in her first term had the induction ritual—to be trained up in the fiendish beats and breaks that Gardner’s rhythm brought to the song. It was a challenge and the time signature is extraordinary in itself. “It’s swing—it’s four-four-three-three, and a bit of two,” says the conductor Hilary Davan Wetton. As music director from 1978 to 1994, he played it on the Steinway piano in the oak-panelled main hall of the school, with a tambourine for accompaniment. “You sometimes hear it played with an organ, but that takes something away.” The song sounds very modern, and its chorus could almost be part of a pop-song:
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.
For generations of girls with diminishing religious sentiments, “Tomorrow” may as well not have been about Christ but the prospect of the yet-untasted ecstasy of romance. During the run-up to the school’s Christmas concert when I was at the school in the nineties, you could hear it sung in the locker rooms and on the lacrosse field.
John Gardner died on 12th December this year, and hopefully this will bring about a revival of other of his works, which Hilary Davan Wetton amongst others believe seriously under-rated. However, for the girls of St Pauls, it will be hard to displace a special affection that developed around this song, which also be seen in the tributes they have paid to Gardner. Amanda Triccas, a former teacher at the school, noticed the effect one day. “I once heard ‘Tomorrow’ played over the Tannoy in the women’s department in Barkers in High Street Kensington. And about three ladies’ heads shot up like meerkats when they heard it. How to get a Paulina to break cover!”