26 February 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (9):
‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 4, ‘The Call’

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.

Many of 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.’

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 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. In the fourth song, ‘The Call,’ the chorus does not feature at all.

For my meditation this morning [26 February 2015], I have chosen this fourth song, ‘The Call.’ Although this poem has been set to music several times, the setting by Vaughan Williams in his ‘Five Mystical Songs’ is undoubtedly the best known. Herbert placed the title ‘The Call’ over the poem in his collection The Temple, so Vaughan Williams adopted it for his setting.

This poem is included in the Irish Church Hymnal as the hymn ‘Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life’ (No 610), where it combines the first half of the version in BBC Songs of Praise (1997) with the second half in The Cambridge Hymnal (1967).

This short poem is simple and direct, and is composed almost completely with words of one syllable.

Herbert’s poetry abounds with Scriptural allusions, drawing on both the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as references to the liturgy of the Church of England. In this short poem, we find references to Revelation 22: 26: “Come, Lord Jesus …” “Come” is the call of the poet to God, but it is also the response of the poet to a call from God.

The first stanza is also a working out of Christ’s self-description in which he tells Saint Thomas that he is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14: 6). But accepting and believing this means living a life that leads to the Cross, which also makes this an appropriate hymn for Lent.

The second stanza has allusions to Luke 8: 16, to the banquet of the Eucharist, and to the wedding at Cana (John 2: 10).

The third stanza summarises the qualities that characterise the soul’s intimate relationship with Christ, with the final line bringing together the three keywords, Joy, Love and Heart.

4, The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

Tomorrow: ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 5, ‘Antiphon

1 comment:

Giocoso said...

Thanks Patrick for a wonderful introduction to a dark Friday morning and Ralph V. Williams is just perfect. It always helps me with my reflections to play pieces such as this very low in the background.as it helps me with focus.