04 August 2022

Praying with USPG and the hymns of
Vaughan Williams: Thursday 4 August 2022

Westminster Cathedral … Sir Richard Runciman Terry’s Westminster Cathedral Choir partly inspired the ‘Mass in G minor’ by Vaughan Williams (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have an appointment with my GP later today for a general check-up. But, before this becomes a busy day, I am taking some time this morning for prayer reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (4 August) remembers Jean-Baptiste Vianne, Curé d’Ars, Spiritual Guide (1859), with a Commemoration.

The Gospel reading at Morning Prayer in Common Worship this morning is:

Luke 22: 47-62 (NRSVA):

47 While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; 48 but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ 49 When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ 50 Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’

54 Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. 55 When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. 56 Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ 57 But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ 58 A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ 59 Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ 60 But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ 62 And he went out and wept bitterly.

Today’s reflection: ‘Mass in G minor’

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, a collector of English folk music and song. With Percy Dearmer, he co-edited the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.

This morning I am thinking about the Mass in G minor by Vaughan Williams, which was first performed in Birmingham 100 years ago in 1922.

The Mass in G minor was written by Vaughan Williams in 1921, and is perhaps notable as the first Mass written in a distinctly English manner since the 16th century. It has been described as being ‘wondrously beautiful and wondrously sad’ at the same time, and it is often chosen as a setting for Ash Wednesday in colleges throughout England.

Vaughan Williams dedicated this piece ‘To Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers’ at Thaxted in north Essex. This group and Sir Richard Runciman Terry’s Westminster Cathedral Choir, which specialised in ‘early’ choral music, were the inspiration for the work. Vaughan Williams sent the completed Mass to Terry for comment, who was delighted by it, before its first performance.

The Mass was then first performed in the Town Hall, Birmingham, on 6 December 1922 by the City of Birmingham Choir under the direction of Joseph Lewis. Although this first performance was in a concert venue, Vaughan Williams intended the Mass to be used in a liturgical setting, and Terry directed its first liturgical performance in Westminster Cathedral on 12 March 1923.

As conductor of the Bach Choir, Vaughan Williams had acquired practical experience of the capabilities of such a group. His experience bore fruit in this Mass. The idiom he adopted unwittingly elicited the jibe ‘Back to Hucbald,’ from a critic who was referring to the tenth century music theorist.

The idiom is purposefully spiritual in the manner of great Elizabethan liturgical music, employing clearly defined imitative entries for the voices, melodic shapes derived from plainchant, and modal harmonies.

In this Mass, Vaughan Williams evokes the sonorities, polyphony and choral textures of the great Tudor composers, including Tallis and Taverner. It is a rich and mystical work, but the composer does not abandon the suggestions of English folksong and parallel harmonies that are typical of his style.

Some commentators have noted how the disposition of voices – four soloists plus two antiphonal bodies of performers – is akin to that used for the strings in the Tallis Fantasia, revised by Vaughan Williams at this time.

The Mass in G minor was written for an unaccompanied double choir and four soloists, and is divided into five movements:

1, Kyrie;

2, Gloria in excelsis;

3, Credo;

4, Sanctus – Hosanna I, Benedictus – Hosanna II;

5, Agnus Dei.

The fourth movement is the most notable, for the ongoing structure of Sanctus – Hosanna I, Benedictus – Hosanna II, but also for the impressionistic undulations of the pianissimo opening, which are reminiscent of the beginning of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony which had its first performance in January 1922, between this Mass being written and receiving its first performance.

Inside Westminster Cathedral … Sir Richard Runciman Terry directed the first liturgical performance of the ‘Mass in G minor’ by Vaughan Williams in Westminster Cathedral on 12 March 1923 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

At the annual conference of the USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) in High Leigh last week, we were updated on the work of USPG’s partners in Ukraine, Russia and with USPG’s partners with Ukrainian refugees. The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Refugee Support in Poland,’ and was introduced by the Revd David Brown, Chaplain of the Anglican Church in Poland.

Thursday 4 August 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the Anglican community in Russia. May we remember those who do not support the Russian conflict and who are being persecuted and imprisoned for their views.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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