Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (8):
‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 3, ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’



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.’

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, particularly in this third song – ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ – where the chorus has a wholly supporting role, quietly and wordlessly singing the plainsong melody O Sacrum Convivium.

I have chosen the third of these Five Mystical Songs, ‘Love Bade Me Welcome,’ for my meditation think about this morning [25 February 2015]. This is part three of the poem ‘Love’ in George Herbert’s collection The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633).

3, Love Bade Me Welcome

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungrateful? Ah, my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.


Tomorrow: The Call