This is the only work in the output of Vaughan Williams officially designated a ballet, though there are several compositions, like Job (1927 - 1930), described as a "masque for dancing." The composer wrote Old King Cole for the English Folk Dance Society's Cambridge branch, which premiered the work on June 5, 1923, at Trinity College. Its story centers on an evening's entertainment the King of Colchester is giving for his daughter, Helena. After he accepts the gift of a pipe from her, he summons three fiddlers. It is decided that his daughter will bestow a prize upon the most talented of them. After their performances, however, it is the King who declares the third fiddler the winner, without consulting his daughter, who would have awarded the prize to the second.
The ballet, scored for orchestra and optional (wordless) chorus, is divided into nine continuous sections, the first representing the King. The music here is festive and light, its humor perhaps a little too obvious and its colors quite garish. The "Pipe Dance" follows, a mostly mellow and dreamy piece in its first half, featuring lovely writing for reeds, and regal and bombastic in the latter portion.
The menacing "Bowl Dance" comes next, a colorful, short dance whose somewhat exotic sonorities augur the music in Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 8 (1953 - 1955; rev. 1956). The fiddlers enter the scene in the ballet at this point, and the ensuing three dances represent their respective attempts at the prize. The first fiddler, a gypsy, plays the Morris Jig, "Go and 'list for a sailor." The music is short and lively here, the orchestral accompaniment boisterous and colorful. The second fiddler delivers a rendition of the folk song, "A bold young farmer," a passionate and lovely piece, probably containing the best music in the ballet. Some of the solo writing here is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams' gossamer The Lark Ascending (1914; rev. 1920).
The last of the fiddlers plays a version of the folk melody, "The Jolly Thresherman," a lively, humorous piece whose violin part is rather secondary to the orchestra's role. Vaughan Williams' orchestration here, in tutti sections and more lightly-scored passages alike, is brilliantly conceived, capturing the folkish and humorous character of the thematic material without turning bombastic even in louder sections. The last number in the work, the "Solo Jig," is lively and colorful in the first half, but recalls the second violinist's theme in the latter half: in the ballet, after the third fiddler is given the award, the King leads everyone off to dine, but the second fiddler remains and plays his lovely, haunting theme as he walks slowly away. Helena hears his music and tosses him a rose, which he fails to take note of.
This ballet lasts about 22 minutes, and while it is not a great masterpiece, it is a fine light work deserving of greater attention than it has generally received.