I Saw Three Ships for String Quartet

I Saw Three Ships for String Quartet – ‘I Saw Three Ships’ is the title track on the Manor House String Quartet‘s popular CD of Chrismas carols arranged for string quartet, entitled…‘I Saw Three Ships and other carols’.

The idea behind the disc first occurred to violinist and arranger Vaughan Jones last November as we were preparing music for a forthcoming Christmas concert at our local church in Cheddington. What Vaughan didn’t want to do was to select well known carols and simply harmonise them as he felt that this could potentially be a little uninteresting both for players and audience alike. Instead, he wanted to tap into the unique quality that Christmas carols have – giving us a special feeling and evoking an atmosphere from being sung and played for several generations. Carols are sometimes so ancient that we’ve forgotten their origins altogether and any melody which can survive for this long and still bring pleasure to people has an inherent magic in it’s own right.

The first carol Vaughan arranged was ‘I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In’. Many have speculated that this traditional English carol refers to the ‘three wise men’ in the Nativity story, or three ships coming into harbour on Christmas morning bearing good things – perhaps with it’s roots in Norse sea-faring traditions. Wherever the words come from, the tune is lively, jolly and upbeat so he had to capture this in the arrangement and as he played with the original melody, a jig-like, folky feel began to emerge in 6/8 time. Adding another folk inspired original counter-melody and passing the tune around between the instruments, the arrangement began to take on a very traditional feel indeed. Later on, there is a canon in which all four instruments overlap with the melody before a final flourish where the first violin plays sweeping scales and the overall effect is rousing and celebratory.

One of the reviews we received recently was in the Classical Music Sentinel and it said that this was the ideal accompaniment to wrapping presents or waking up on Christmas morning – and it just had to be the first track on the disc because it immediately gives the listener a rousing introduction to the album.

We often play this piece at Christmas concerts or when we are booked to perform at a Corporate Christmas events or Christmas parties and we never fail to spot a lot of toes tapping!

You can also purchase the sheet music of Vaughan’s arrangement for the combinations of string quartet and string orchestra here:

I Saw Three Ships – Music Score