Monday, 23 February 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (6):
‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 1, ‘Easter’



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.

The work, taken as one, 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.

Many of George Herbert’s poems have become hymns that are well-known and well-loved by generations of Anglicans. They include ‘Let all the world in every corner sing,’ ‘Teach me, my God and King’ and ‘King of Glory, King of Peace.’

He was the Public Orator at Cambridge for eight years, and spent only three years as a priest before he died.

Herbert was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare, and lived at a time when the English language was expanding and developing its literary capacities, aided by the publication of the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Like most Anglicans of his day, Herbert sought to steer a middle course between the Roman Catholics and the Puritans. Perhaps he appealed to Vaughan Williams because were both men were creatively preoccupied with that age-old conflict between God and World, Flesh and Spirit, Soul and Senses.

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 George Herbert’s simple verse, the songs are fairly direct, but have the same intrinsic spirituality as the original text. The first four songs are personal meditations in which the soloist takes a key role. They were supposed to be performed together, as a single work, but the styles of each vary quite significantly.

Vaughan Williams has divided George Herbert’s poem ‘Easter ’into two parts to provide the first two songs, ‘Easter’ and ‘I Got Me Flowers.’

As Lent is a pilgrimage or journey towards Easter, I have chosen the first of these Five Mystical Songs, ‘Easter,’ to think about this morning [23 February 2015]. The setting for ‘Easter’ is elaborate in design and Michael Kennedy ascribes its richness of orchestral detail to “Elgarian prototypes.”

1, Easter

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.
Sing his praise without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise with him may’st rise;
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part with all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name, who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is the best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song pleasant and long;
Or since all musick is but three parts vied and multiplied.
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.


Tomorrow: ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 2, ‘I Got Me Flowers

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