11 April 2009

Four reflections for Holy Saturday (3): Vaughan Williams, The Song of the Tree of Life

The Cross as the Tree of Life

Patrick Comerford

Last year, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), was marked with a series of events, including a special Night at the Proms on BBC (30 August 2008).

I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when I was 19 and I was staying in Wilderhope Manor on the slopes of Wenlock Edge. It was 1971 and I was walking through Shropshire. Appropriately, the warden of the youth hostel suggested I should listen to Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, in which the dominant theme of love outweighs the expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice and death of the young soldiers in World War I.

Bishop Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, say: “Many would claim he was the greatest 20th century English composer.”

Vaughan Williams was a vicar’s son from Gloucestershire and he was related to Charles Darwin, whose bicentenary is being marked this year (2009).

Vaughan Williams studied under the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis became his first major public success when he conducted its premiere in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. When he died in 1957, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

His second wife, the poet Ursula Wood, claimed he was an “atheist … [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.” But Vaughan Williams is a deeply mystical and spiritual composer, and many of his works have religious subject-matters.

His hymn settings include To be a pilgrim, based on John Bunyan’s hymn Who would true valour see; the tune for William Walsham How’s For All the Saints; the tune for the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem; and his setting for Come Down, O Love Divine. He wrote settings for canticles, carols and masses.

With Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw, Vaughan Williams can be credited with the revival and spread of traditional and mediaeval English musical forms. Without Vaughan Williams, it is impossible to imagine the English Hymnal (1906), Songs of Praise (1925) and The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) which he edited with Percy Dearmer, and which have shaped much of modern Anglican worship and liturgy.

As David Johnson said in The Tablet last year (23 August 2008): “The preoccupation with the journey of the soul shines through the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams. His music is the enduring legacy of one of the most insightful and visionary of pilgrims.”

The Song of the Tree of Life, which we have heard in a recording by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral, is a revised version of one of the songs from a setting of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as an opera by Vaughan Williams.

The words are adapted from Revelation 2, and they say:

Unto him that overcometh shall be given the Tree of Life
which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.
On either side of the river groweth the Tree of Life,
the Leaves of the Tree are for thy healing.
In the midst of that fair City flows the river of Water of Life, clear as crystal.
Who so will, let him take of the Water of Life freely.
Who so drinketh of this water shall never thirst.
Take thou the Leaves of the Tree of Life.
So shalt thou enter in through the Gates of the City.

In these words, the author of Revelation, Bunyan, and Vaughan Williams link the death on the Cross with the Tree of the Life, the Crucifixion outside Jerusalem with the hope for the New Jerusalem.

If this is where Vaughan Williams placed his hope, then he shared in the Easter hope that we should all be sharing this day.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the third of four reflections at a service of readings, music and prayers for Holy Saturday in Whitechurch Parish, Dublin, on Saturday 11 April 2009.

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