The Holly and the Ivy for String Quartet – ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is the fifth carol featured on the Manor House String Quartet‘s first CD of string quartet Christmas carol arrangements, entitled ‘I Saw Three Ships and other carols’.
Looking back to pre-Christian traditions, both Holly and Ivy held significance for Yultetide celebrations. Holly was regarded as masculine – reputed to bestow strength when taken into homes during the winter as a strong and protective plant. Ivy represented growth and development and was believed to bring good fortune – it was associated with a more feminine principle. As a plant, Ivy often lives on and grows back after being cut right down – symbolising that life goes on in a cycle of death and re-birth. With such a long history in the folk tradition, it is no surprise that as Christianity became more established, the plants continued to be used to decorate churches throughout the Solstice / Christmas period and the carol we know and love today still reminds us of an earlier tradition.
There is no certain source for the melody – other than it was collected by Cecil Sharpe from a lady in Gloucestershire in the early 20th century. When violinist Vaughan Jones began to arrange it for string quartet, he wanted to keep the buoyancy and pulse of the melody, yet include more intricate detail. The tune itself suggests a number of different harmonies so creating variety was not a problem and with some contrasting sections (including a bouncy staccato passage) the spirit of the carol hopefully shines through in this string quartet arrangement.
You can also purchase the sheet music of Vaughan’s arrangement for the combinations of string quartet and string orchestra here: