31 December 2015

Christmas with Vaughan Williams (8):
‘Hodie’, 12 and 13: Hymn and Narration

‘Behold there came wise men from the east’ … the Magi arrive at the crib scene in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

During this Christmas season, I am inviting you to join me each morning in a series of Christmas meditations as I listen to the Christmas cantata Hodie (‘This Day’) by the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), drawing on English Christmas poetry from diverse sources, including poems by John Milton, Thomas Hardy and George Herbert that reflect a variety of Christmas experiences, and the narration of the Nativity story in the Gospels.

Hodie, with its blend of mysticism, heavenly glory and human hope, was composed by Vaughan Williams in 1953-1954 and is his last major choral-orchestral composition.

Today is New Year’s Eve [31 December 2015] and we have reached the end of the year. This morning, I invite you to join me in listening to the twelfth and thirteenth movements of Hodie, which include a hym based on the poem ‘Christmas Day’ by the Scottish poet William Drummond, and a narration adapted from Saint Matthew’s account of the first Christmas (Matthew 2: 1-11).

12 and 13: Hymn and Narration

12, Hymn

The hymn in the twelfth movement is the only solo movement for the tenor in the entire cantata. It said to have been a late addition by Vaughan Williams when the original tenor soloist complained about the size of his part. The movement is brilliantly scored for full orchestra, and opens with a bright brass fanfare. The text is the poem ‘Christmas Day’ by William Drummond:

Bright portals of the sky,
Emboss’d with sparkling stars,
Doors of eternity,
With diamantine bars,
Your arras rich uphold,
Loose all your bolts and springs,
Ope wide your leaves of gold,
That in your roofs may come the King of Kings.

O well-spring of this All!
Thy Father’s image vive;
Word, that from nought did call
What is, doth reason, live;
The soul’s eternal food,
Earth’s joy, delight of heaven;
All truth, love, beauty, good:
To thee, to thee be praises ever given!

O glory of the heaven!
O sole delight of earth!
To thee all power be given,
God’s uncreated birth!
Of mankind lover true,
Indearer of his wrong,
Who doth the world renew,
Still be thou our salvation and our song!

William Drummond, who was born at Hawthornden on 13 December 1585, was the son of John Drummond, first Laird of Hawthornden, and his wife, Susannah (Fowler). In 1590, John Drummond was appointed Gentleman-Usher to King James VI of Scotland, to whom the Drummonds were distantly related, and his uncle William Fowler was made private secretary to Queen Anne.

Drummond attended Edinburgh High School, and graduated MA from Edinburgh University in 1605. In 1606, he went to England and then to France, and studied law at the university in Bourges before returning to Scotland in 1608. His extensive book collection included a considerable theological section.

13, Narration

Vaughan Williams follows his setting of Drummond’s Christmas poem with a narration adapted from Saint Matthew’s account of the nativity (Matthew 2: 1-11):

Now when Jesus was born, behold there came wise men from the east,
saying, “Where is he that is born King? for we have seen his star in
the east, and are come to worship him.” And they said unto them,
“In Bethlehem.” When they had heard that, they departed; and, lo,
the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came
and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star,
they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into
the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell
down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures,
they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
The voice of the kings is provided by the men of the chorus.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.

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