19 February 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (2):
‘Mass in G minor’

Patrick Comerford

As my reflections and devotions for Lent this year, I intend each day to reflect 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).

Later today, I am presiding at the Eucharist at a meeting of the Irish chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests (SCP), so this morning I am thinking about the Mass in G minor by Vaughan Williams, which is often chosen as a setting for Ash Wednesday in colleges throughout England.

The Mass in G minor was written by Vaughan Williams in 1921, and is perhaps notable as the first mass written in a distinctly English manner since the 16th century. It has been described as being ‘wondrously beautiful and wondrously sad’ at the same time.

Vaughan Williams dedicated this piece ‘To Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers’ at Thaxted in north Essex. This group and Sir Richard Runciman Terry’s Westminster Cathedral Choir, which specialised in ‘early’ choral music, were the inspiration for the work. Vaughan Williams sent the completed Mass to Terry for comment, who was delighted by it, before its first performance.

The Mass was then first performed in the Town Hall, Birmingham, on 6 December 1922 by the City of Birmingham Choir under the direction of Joseph Lewis. Although this first performance was in a concert venue, Vaughan Williams intended the Mass to be used in a liturgical setting, and Terry directed its first liturgical performance in Westminster Cathedral on 12 March 1923.

As conductor of the Bach Choir, Vaughan Williams had acquired practical experience of the capabilities of such a group. His experience bore fruit in this Mass. The idiom he adopted unwittingly elicited the jibe ‘Back to Hucbald,’ from a critic who was referring to the tenth century music theorist.

The idiom is purposefully spiritual in the manner of great Elizabethan liturgical music, employing clearly defined imitative entries for the voices, melodic shapes derived from plainchant, and modal harmonies. In this Mass, Vaughan Williams evokes the sonorities, polyphony and choral textures of the great Tudor composers, including Tallis and Taverner. It is a rich and mystical work, but the composer does not abandon the suggestions of English folksong and parallel harmonies that are typical of his style.

Some commentators have noted how the disposition of voices—four soloists plus two antiphonal bodies of performers—is akin to that used for the strings in the Tallis Fantasia, revised by Vaughan Williams at this time.

The Mass in G minor was written for an unaccompanied double choir and four soloists, and is divided into five movements:

1, Kyrie;

2, Gloria in excelsis;

3, Credo;

4, Sanctus - Hosanna I, Benedictus - Hosanna II;

5, Agnus Dei.

The fourth movement is the most notable, for the ongoing structure of Sanctus–Hosanna I, Benedictus–Hosanna II, but also for the impressionistic undulations of the pianissimo opening, which are reminiscent of the beginning of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony which had its first performance in January 1922, between this Mass being written and receiving its first performance.

Tomorrow:There is no moment of my life

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