Friday, 1 January 2016

Christmas with Vaughan Williams (9):
‘Hodie’, 14, ‘The March of the Three Kings

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by CE Kempe in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church, Lichfield (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 Day [1 January 2016] and we have arrived at the start of the New Year. This morning, I invite you to join me in listening to the fourteenth movement of Hodie, which tells the story of the arrival of the Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, in Bethlehem with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

14, The March of the Three Kings



The March of the Three Kings represents the first time since the beginning of this cantata that soloists, choir, and orchestra join together to sing a movement. The chorus introduces the march, and the text was written expressly for the composer by his wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007). The linking of birth and death also has echoes of TS Eliot’s poem, Journey of the Magi.

Each of the soloists sings a separate verse, each describing one king and his gift, before joining together to finish the march.

From kingdoms of wisdom secret and far
come Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar;
they ride through time, they ride through night
led by the star’s foretelling light.

Crowning the skies the star of morning, star of dayspring, calls:
clear on the hilltop its sharp radiance falls
lighting the stable and the broken walls
where the prince lies.

Gold from the veins of earth he brings,
red gold to crown the King of Kings.
Power and glory here behold
shut in a talisman of gold.

Frankincense from those dark hands
was gathered in eastern, sunrise lands,
incense to burn both night and day
to bear the prayers a priest will say.

Myrrh is a bitter gift for the dead.
Birth but begins the path you tread;
your way is short, your days foretold
by myrrh, and frankincense and gold.

Return to kingdoms secret and far,
Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar,
ride through the desert, retrace the night,
leaving the star’s imperial light.

Crowning the skies the star of morning, star of dayspring, calls:
clear on the hilltop its sharp radiance falls
lighting the stable and the broken walls
where the prince lies.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.

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