Fantasy on I Saw Three Ships for Cello Octet
Arranged by Stephen Watkins
Title: Fantasy on I Saw Three Ships (for Cello Octet)
Composer: Folk Song
Edited By: Stephen Watkins
Instrumentation: Violoncello Ensemble
Pages: 9 for the score and 24 for each violoncello part
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"I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)" is a traditional and popular Christmas carol from England. A variant of its parent tune "Greensleeves", the earliest printed version of "I Saw Three Ships" is from the 17th century, possibly Derbyshire, and was also published by William Sandys in 1833.
Writing music for Christmas often creates conflicting challenges for composers. Often ensembles get more concert opportunities and bigger audiences at this time of year. Having bigger audiences means that there will be folks who do not go to many concerts that are exposed to music. The responsibility here is to provide accessible music which will appeal to audiences while not being 'trite' or condescending to players or audience.
Often I regard the fantasia as merely a set of variations that run into each other without a break. This piece takes the old English Carol "I Saw Three Ships" and introduces it in a 5/4 setting, which is very accessible to the audience due to its inevitable metrical similarity to a 60's Jazz Classic, inverts the theme in a lullaby section and concludes with a fugue which owes a little to the English composer Michael Tippet.