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ClassicsOnline Home » VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on Christmas Carols / Hodie
Vaughan Williams’s Christmas Cantata Hodie (This Day) is a brilliant mosaic of musical styles set to poetry from the most diverse sources. Texts by Milton, Hardy, and George Herbert reflecting various Christmas experiences are bound together by a narration of the Gospel Nativity story sung in unison by a boys’ choir. With its gripping blend of mysticism, heavenly glory and human hope, Hodie flows with a vitality and inventiveness that belie a work written in Vaughan Williams’s old age. The Fantasia on Christmas Carols, which incorporates a number of traditional English carols, is notable for the obbligato cello part and for the varied treatment of the choir, which provide an atmospheric choral-orchestral texture.
By James McCarthy
By Michael Southern
By David Denton
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Fantasia on Christmas Carols • Hodie
Ralph Vaughan Williams, fresh down from Cambridge, first went to the Royal College of Music as a student in 1895. We tend to forget that he was composing throughout his student years, because later he suppressed almost everything which he had written before he found his mature voice, except some songs. At the time this was a clear-sighted and sensible policy which must have required a great deal of self-discipline to carry out, but it meant that when he achieved national recognition in the five years before the First World War with Toward the Unknown Region, On Wenlock Edge, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, A Sea Symphony, the Five Mystical Songs and the Fantasia on Christmas Carols, he had not only achieved a remarkable artistic tour-de-force but in six or seven years had evolved an idiom and a usage which in the space of very few years was characteristic of those who would supplant most of the previously established British music of the Victorian Era.
The elements that came together to produce so distinctive a personal style, and so dramatic and beneficial a change of direction for the British music of his time, were folk-song, impressionism in both harmony and orchestration, and the use of very varied anthologies of English (including American) literature for his vocal works, with extracts from the King James Bible.
Curiously, Christmas has been a ready theme throughout Vaughan Williams's music, an interest generated by his enthusiasm for folk-music, and first in evidence in his work on the English Hymnal, first published in 1906. There in his early Christmas music he took many folk-tunes for what then were new carols that became popular favourites. In 1912 came his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, discussed below, and written for Hereford where his friend Mrs E M Leather was the source of two of the tunes he set. After the war he turned to this attractive music again and in 1920 he published Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire which he and Mrs Leather edited for publication. Then in 1926 came the Dickensian masque – folk ballet would be a better description – On Christmas Night – heard in London in 1929 as A Christmas Carol Suite. After this twenty years passed, until in 1949 he wrote Folk Songs of the Four Seasons for the National Federation of Women's Institutes, sung at the Royal Albert Hall by a vast female choir; from our perspective the fourth movement, 'Winter' again takes Christmas as his theme. So when in 1953 he started writing Hodie, he was making a final summation of a lifetime's sympathy in celebrating the Nativity. Even then he had not done with Christmas and in 1958, only months before his death at the age of 86, he completed a final setting for voices, The First Nowell.
In 1911 Vaughan Williams set George Herbert's poetry in his Five Mystical Songs and found the style in which within a year he created his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, using similar forces, also with the baritone Campbell McInnes as soloist. Significantly Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols is dedicated to Cecil Sharp, which places it squarely in the mainstream of his folk-song works. It incorporates four traditional English carols, the second 'Come all you worthy gentlemen' collected by Sharp. Otherwise there are three other tunes treated in full: 'This is the truth sent from above', 'On Christmas night all Christians sing' and 'God bless the ruler of this house, and long may he reign' (tune: 'There is a fountain'). The first and the last of these came from Herefordshire, the composer acknowledging 'Mrs Leather' as his source, and 'On Christmas Night' collected in Sussex by Vaughan Williams himself in 1904. Fragments of other well-known carols appear from time to time as links or counter-melodies.
The score is notable for the opening cello solo and for the varied treatment of the choir, who are not only asked to sing conventionally, but also to do so with closed lips (as in the humming tone at the outset), to vocalise to 'ah' and to singing with half-closed lips, as the composer described it 'with a short "u" sound as in the word "but"' developing the choral treatment he had first used in the Five Mystical Songs of the previous year. This makes for a very varied and atmospheric choral-orchestral texture. The Fantasia was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford on 12 September 1912 with the composer conducting.
Vaughan Williams sets Hodie (This Day) in sixteen movements, and Anglican listeners unfamiliar with it will almost certainly immediately relate it to the familiar Christmas service of nine lessons and carols, here Vaughan Williams giving us seven lessons and songs or carols, with a prologue and epilogue. Nor must we forget that Vaughan Williams conducted Bach's St Matthew Passion in his own idiosyncratic edition for some thirty years, and debts to Bach may be felt in the treatment, though not the actual sound.
From the opening celebratory Prologue with its fanfares and the brilliant shouts of the Vespers for Christmas day, this is clearly a work of celebration. Vaughan Williams sets the Latin text, which translates as:
Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
Christmas Day, Christ was born on Christmas Day.
Christmas Day, on earth are Angels singing,
Christmas Day, rejoice ye just men, saying
Glory to God in the highest.
Throughout Vaughan Williams gives us seven passages of narration, largely sung by the boy choristers to simple organ accompaniment. We first hear them in the second number as St Matthew tells us of the birth of Jesus, the voice of the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream being sung by the solo tenor.
For his first song Vaughan Williams quarried Milton's Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity and he returns to it at the end. Here he sets 'It was the winter wild' for solo soprano coloured by the sound of the women's choir. This is a poised, soaring setting, its feeling of frozen sculptured lines reinforced by the orchestral textures, all flute and strings.
The boys continue the Narration with more of the familiar Christmas words, now from St Luke: 'And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.' This leads to what Vaughan Williams calls a 'Choral', an unaccompanied choral setting of Miles Coverdale's English words, The blessed son of God', translating Martin Luther.
The Narration resumes with 'And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field'. The boys sing of the Angel of the Lord, the solo tenor, whose entry is heightened by the entry of the accompanying orchestra, and it builds to a brief but blazing climax – then tells of the baby lying in a manger, now to evocative harp accompaniment. We hear the opening Glorias again, and the section ends with the words 'Good will towards men', the tempo now Allegro vivace, which is given extended treatment.
We reach the third song, a set piece setting of Thomas Hardy's familiar poem 'The Oxen', given to the baritone soloist, as one of the shepherds, the flute and winds being very prominent in the accompaniment. The choristers continue the Narration 'And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God', and ending with a brief outburst 'Glory to God in the highest'. Vaughan Williams now turns to George Herbert for a second baritone solo which he characterizes as a pastoral, with the words 'The shepherds sing'.
The Narration continues from Luke: 'But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart' leading straight into the Lullaby for chorus and solo soprano 'Sweet was the song the Virgin sang'. So simple and heartfelt an invention was something Vaughan Williams could always achieve supremely well. In 1954 one might well imagine it seemed old fashioned, in fact we can now see it was timeless.
Trumpet and brilliant orchestral sounds announce the radiant tenor solo, setting words by William Drummond in the hymn 'Bright portals of the sky, / Emboss'd with sparkling stars.' No ordinary hymn, this celebratory panegyric to the glory of the heavens is illuminated by the coruscating orchestral textures, belying the view sometimes heard that Vaughan Williams had no feeling for the orchestra.
The contrast with the organ announcing the following Narration is striking. This time the male chorus soon reinforce the boys in Matthew's words: 'Now when Jesus was born, behold, there came wise men from the east'. Vaughan Williams loved a vividly imagined set-piece like The March of the Three Kings which his wife Ursula Vaughan Williams provided for him as a penultimate climax. The composer pulls in all his forces, three soloists, choir and orchestra. They sing of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and eventually the movement ends quietly and is followed by Ursula Vaughan Williams's gentle interlude 'No sad thought his soul affright' – another Choral – heralded by wide-spanning strings, the chorus entering unaccompanied.
Vaughan Williams called his closing sequence 'Epilogue'. Here he revisits the two themes we may remember from the message to Joseph at the beginning. The baritone, like the very voice of God, solemnly intones 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' For his ecstatic finale Vaughan Williams again turns to Milton's Hymn on the morning of Christ's Nativity, revisiting the tune of the earlier setting in No. 3. He changes the order of Milton's verses starting with 'Ring out, ye crystal spheres' and with a typical march, all bells and running strings, the chorus lead us into the gloriously affirmative finale, saving for the end 'Yea, truth and justice then'. Tumultuous is the only adequate word to describe the close. Its first performance at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral on 8 September 1954 conducted by the composer was almost exactly 42 years since he had appeared at neighbouring Hereford with his Fantasia on Christmas Carols.
Lewis Foreman © 2007
Sung texts are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570439.htm
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