‘The Holy Family’ by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
This morning [25 December 2015] and for the next week or so, until 2 January 2016, I invite you to join me each morning in a series of Christmas meditations or reflections as I listen to the Christmas cantata Hodie (‘This Day’) by the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).
In this cantata, Vaughan Williams draws on English Christmas poetry from diverse sources. These poems by John Milton, Thomas Hardy and George Herbert, among others, reflect a variety of Christmas experiences and they are bound together by the narration of the Nativity story in the Gospel narratives.
With its blend of mysticism, heavenly glory and human hope, Hodie flows with a vitality and inventiveness that belie a work written by Vaughan Williams in his old age.
Hodie was composed by Vaughan Williams in 1953-1954 and is dedicated to Herbert Howells. This is the last major choral-orchestral composition by Vaughan Williams, and had its premiere on 8 September 1954 under his baton his baton at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral. The cantata is in 16 movements, and is scored for chorus, boys’ choir, organ and orchestra, and features tenor, baritone and soprano soloists.
Hodie is a synthesis of Vaughan Williams’s entire artistic career, with elements drawn from most periods of his work. He had already experimented with interweaving Biblical texts with poetry in his cantata Dona nobis pacem, which shaped my reflections during Holy Week earlier this year. Some of the movements also reflect earlier works: the accompaniment to the ‘Hymn’ is similar to the Sinfonia Antartica, while the ‘Pastoral’ shares some elements from the Five Mystical Songs (1911), which I reflected on during Lent this year.
Hodie is bound together by three recurring motifs. One is first heard on the word “Gloria” in the first movement, and recurs whenever the word is introduced again. The second, introduced in the first narration, reappears at the beginning of the epilogue. The final setting of Milton’s text uses the same melody as the first song for soprano, although orchestrated differently.
1, Prologue: ‘Nowell! Nowell!’
The cantata opens with jubilant fanfares for brass, soon followed by cries of “Nowell!” from the full chorus. These introduce a setting of part of the Vespers for Christmas Day. This setting of the Latin text is the only part of the cantata that is not in English.
Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
Hodie Christus natus est: hodie salvator apparuit:
Hodie in terra canunt angeli, laetantur archangeli:
Hodie exultant justi, dicentes: gloria in excelsis Deo: Alleluia.
Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!
Today Christ is born: Today the Saviour appeared:
Today on Earth the Angels sing, Archangels rejoice:
Today the righteous rejoice, saying: Glory to God in the highest: Alleluia.
The setting of the text is direct and uncomplicated, apart from the varied settings of the final “Alleluia,” yet it includes many rhythmic irregularities.
Throughout Hodie, Vaughan Williams provides seven passages of narration from the Gospel accounts of the Incarnation. The first narration, which follows as the second movement, is one of several linking the various solo and choral movements of the piece. Each narration is scored for organ and boys’ choir, and takes its text from various portions of the Gospels. The first narration takes as its text Matthew 1: 18-21 and 23 and Luke 1: 32.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this wise: when as his mother
Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was
found with child of the Holy Ghost.
Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, was minded to put her
away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the
angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream.
The tenor soloist, introduced by a quiet woodwind melody, serves as the voice of the angel:
“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife:
for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she
shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus.”
The full chorus then joins the soloist in the final part of the passage:
“He shall be great; and shall be called the Son of the Highest:
Emmanuel, God with us.”
Tomorrow: 3, Song: ‘It was the winter wild’
Yesterday: ‘Fantasia on Christmas Carols’