As his partisans know, Vaughan Williams was a versatile composer who wrote compositions in almost every major genre, producing masterpieces in most. The venues of film and radio even attracted his attention: not only did he write nearly a dozen film scores, but he also wrote three works for radio productions, one of which was for the 1951 serialization (ten weekly installments) of Thomas Hardy's novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Vaughan Williams wrote this score in 1950, and for it borrowed the tune from one of his favorite carols, "On Christmas Night the Joy-Bells Ring." In 1953 he fashioned the Prelude on an Old Carol Tune from this music.
The piece opens deliberately, the strings playing the theme in a sober, almost philosophical manner. The clarinet takes it up, maintaining the subdued and serious character, though sounding both mournful and soothing in its gentle sonorities. The medium-sized orchestra stirs midway through and intensifies the mood in the latter half. The instrumental writing is typical of late-Vaughan Williams in its somewhat dark, often-craggy post-Romantic style, where strings and reeds can sing and brass can jab and growl, the whole producing a cauldron of subtle orchestral colors. This is not a widely-performed work, but its high quality makes it deserving of far greater attention.