13 July 2009

Spiritual summertime moments of music

Patrick Comerford

For two Sunday mornings in a row I’ve had the real pleasure of listening to the Mass in G Minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) with glorious choirs and wonderful settings.

This Vaughan Williams Mass was the setting for the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, yesterday [Sunday 12 July], and on the previous Sunday for the Choral Eucharist in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

The Mass in G Minor, written by Vaughan Williams in 1921, is the first Mass written in a distinctly English manner since the 16th century. Vaughan Williams dedicated his Mass to his friend Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and to the Whitsunstide Singers at Thaxted in North Essex, where Holst lived for many years. At the time, the Vicar of Thaxted was Conrad Noel (1869-1942), one of the most prominent-ever Christian Socialists. When he hung the Red Flag alongside the flag of Saint George in his church, his action stirred “the Battle of the Flags,” with students from Cambridge leading attacks on the church to remove the flags.

Vaughan Williams had been an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was a great-nephew of Charles Darwin, whose bicentenary is being marked throughout Cambridge, especially at his alma mater, Christ’s College, and in a special exhibition in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Mass is written for an unaccompanied double choir and four soloists, and divided into five movements: Kyrie; Gloria in Excelsis; Credo; Sanctus; and Agnus Dei.

It was appropriate therefore that I heard the Mass in Cambridge last week and that we had two choirs in Christ Church Cathedral yesterday … the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

As an added bonus, as our Communion hymn, we sang We come as guests invited, which is set to the tune King’s Lynn, an adaptation by Vaughan Williams of a traditional English folk melody, King’s Lynn.

In his Mass in G Minor, Vaughan Williams pays homage to the traditions of Tudor Church music while remaining distinctively 20th century. The early 1920s marked a pastoral interlude for Vaughan Williams, and his work at the time also included The Lark Ascending, The Pastoral Symphony and The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. In 1921, the same year as the latter two pieces, Vaughan Williams also wrote his Mass in G Minor.

The musical link between the Mass in G Minor and his pastoral works is impossible to miss. The Mass is full of the rich harmonies associated with the composer in his most “English summertime” moments, but the origins of the piece are also, as with Howell’s Requiem, in the revival of English polyphony and with the identification by Vaughan Williams of his music with “the imperishable glories of English prose.”

The Mass was dedicated to Gustav Holst and the Whitsuntide Singers – Holst and Vaughan Williams had been students together and at the time were very close friends.

This Mass was first performed by the City of Birmingham Choir on 6 December 1922. But while its first performance was in a concert venue, Vaughan Williams intended the Mass to be used in a liturgical setting. Eventually it had its first liturgical performance at Westminster Cathedral, under the direction of RR Terry, who took an instant liking to the work.

Terry and Holst both championed the liturgical use of the Mass. The success of the Mass in G Minor as a liturgical work in post-war Britain is best summed up in Terry’s own words to Vaughan Williams: “I’m quite sincere when I say that it is the work one has all along been waiting for. In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.”

As the choirs sang the Mass on Sunday morning, I could imagine Christ in some way benignly above the green and golden countryside of Cambridgeshire and North Essex, including Thaxted, which an old school friend, Frank Domoney, had taken the time to drive me through late on Friday afternoon ... to paraphrae Vaughan Williams, it was an “English summertime” moment.

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