Friday, 27 February 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (10):
‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 5, ‘Antiphon’

“George Herbert (1593-1633) at Bemerton” (William Dyce, 1860)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For the weekdays of this week, I am reflecting on ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams between 1906 and 1911. Vaughan Williams conducted the first performance of the completed work at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester on 14 September 1911.

This work sets four poems by the 17th century Welsh-born English poet and Anglican priest George Herbert (1593–1633), from his 1633 collection The Temple: Sacred Poems.

His first biographer, Izaak Walton, described Herbert on his deathbed as “composing such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven.” The Temple was edited by his friend Nicholas Ferrar and was published in Cambridge later that year as The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations. It met with such popular acclaim that it had been reprinted 20 times by 1680, and went through eight editions by 1690.

George Herbert is commemorated in the Church of England and in calendars throughout the Anglican Communion on this day [27 February]. Many of his poems have become hymns that are well-known and well-loved by generations of Anglicans, including the fifth of these mystical songs, as the hymn ‘Let all the world in every corner sing,’ as well as ‘Teach me, my God and King’ and ‘King of Glory, King of Peace.’

Trinity Lane, Cambridge, in the snow, with the walls of Trinity College on the right ... both George Herbert and Vaughan Williams were students at Trinity College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Both George Herbert and Vaughan Williams were students at Trinity College Cambridge, and the composer's father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, served as a curate in Bemerton, the Wiltshire parish where Herbert had been vicar 200 years earlier. Vaughan Williams wrote his ‘Five Mystical Songs’ for a baritone soloist, with several choices for accompaniment: piano only; piano and string quintet; TTBB chorus, a cappella; and orchestra with optional SATB chorus, the choice Vaughan Williams used at the premiere.

Like Herbert’s simple verse, the songs are direct, but have the same intrinsic spirituality as the original text. They were supposed to be performed together, as a single work, but the styles of each vary quite significantly.



The first four songs are personal meditations in which the soloist takes a key role. However, the final ‘Antiphon’ is the most different of all the hymns. This the climactic finale to Vaughan Williams’s ‘Five Mystical Songs’ and it is a staple of the sacred choral repertoire and a superb culminating work for both concert and worship settings.

This is a triumphant hymn of praise, sung either by the chorus alone or by the soloist alone. Unlike the previous four songs, a separate version is provided for a solo baritone. It is also sometimes performed on its own, as an anthem for choir and organ: ‘Let all the world in every corner sing.’

I have chosen this fifth mystical song ‘Antiphon,’ as my Lenten meditation this morning [27 February 2015], the day in which we also commemorate George Herbert in the calendars of many churches throughout the Anglican Communion.

This poem has been set to music by many other composers and it is included in the New English Hymnal (Hymn 394) and the Irish Church Hymnal (Hymn 360) as the hymn, with a well-known tune ‘Luckington’ by Basil Harwood. This version was also sung at the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury 12 years ago on 27 February 2003.

In my own collection of music, ‘Antiphon’ is the concluding track (No 17) in collection Choral Classics recorded by Lichfeld Cathedral Choir in 2008 with Philip Scriven as Director and Martyn Rawles on the Organ, a programme of popular choral music from the 16th century to the present day.

5, Antiphon

Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing:
My God and King.

The heavens are not too high,
His praise may thither flie;
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing: My God and King.

The Church with psalms must shout,
No doore can keep them out;
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing:
My God and King.

Tomorrow:He who would Valiant be’ (Monk’s Gate)

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