02 January 2016

Christmas with Vaughan Williams (10):
‘Hodie’, 15 and 16: Choral and Epilogue

‘Never since the world began / Such a light such dark did span’ … Lichfield Cathedral at night during this Christmas season (Photograph: John Godley, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

During this Christmas season, I have been 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).

In this cantata, Vaughan Williams draws 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.

This morning [1 January 2016], we come to the end of this cantata, with the two closing movements, a second choral and the Epilogue.

15 and 16: Choral and Epilogue

15, Choral:

The text of the second choral, again for an unaccompanied chorus, is heart-achingly beautiful and is in two parts. The first verse is from an anonymous poem, while the second verse again was furnished by the composer’s second wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007), who was already established as a poet when they married:

No sad thought his soul affright,
Sleep it is that maketh night;
Let no murmur nor rude wind
To his slumbers prove unkind:
But a quire of angels make
His dreams of heaven, and let him wake
To as many joys as can
In this world befall a man.

Promise fills the sky with light,
Stars and angels dance in flight;
Joy of heaven shall now unbind
Chains of evil from mankind,
Love and joy their power shall break,
And for a new born prince’s sake;
Never since the world began
Such a light such dark did span.

16, Epilogue

The epilogue opens with a setting, for the three soloists, of a text adapted from two Gospel passages, John 1: 1, 4, and 14, and Matthew 1: 23:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. In him was life; and the life was the
light of men. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among
us, full of grace and truth. Emmanuel, God with us.

The chorus joins in on the final words, and the remainder of the work is scored for full chorus and orchestra, with soloists. It again sets a fragment of the poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ one of the earliest poems by John Milton (1608-1674), written while he was a 21-year-old at Christ’s College, Cambridge:

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears,

If ye have power to touch our senses so;
And let your silver chime

Move in melodious time,
And let the bass of heaven’s deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to the angelic symphony.

Such music (as ’tis said)
Before was never made,

But when of old the sons of the morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,

And the well-balanced world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.

Yea, truth and justice then
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And heaven, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.

Yesterday’s reflection

Tomorrow: ‘The truth sent from above’.

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