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ClassicsOnline Home » VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R.: Sacred Choral Music (Clare College Choir, Cambridge, T. Brown)
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s sublime Mass in G minor reveals the composer’s absorbing interest in using the modal harmonic language and contrapuntal textures of the English late Renaissance to achieve a huge emotional and dynamic range. Undoubtedly the most technically demanding work on this disc is A Vision of Aeroplanes, a virtuosic motet for mixed chorus and organ. Several neglected works also feature here, including The Voice out of the Whirlwind, an anthem for mixed chorus and orchestra or organ, and Valiant-for-truth, one of several works based on Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
A Vision of Aeroplanes • Mass in G minor • Motets
Among my earliest musical memories is that of singing, as a very junior chorister, at the interring of the ashes of Ralph Vaughan Williams in Westminster Abbey in September 1958. It was impossible, young as I was, to be unaware of the act of national mourning in which I was participating. Performing Greene’s Lord, let me know mine end, chosen by Vaughan Williams to be sung on this occasion, and hearing the exquisite strains of the Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazurus’ played from the organ loft, was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Amongst the orchestral music before the service was the Galliard from Job; little did I know then that fifty years later I would direct the choral version heard on this recording. Over a long life Vaughan Williams had endeared himself to a nation through his humanity as much as the music that the world had come to regard as
quintessentially ‘English’. His association with the English Hymnal, with the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and with amateur music-making, principally through his connection with the Leith Hill Festival, were characteristics that marked him out from his contemporary composers. Yet none of this was to detract from his seriousness as a composer of symphonies, film music and opera. It had been with the Sea Symphony, first performed at the Leeds Festival of 1910, and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis that Vaughan Williams had had his first major successes, revealing not only his skill as a symphonist and composer for voices, but his fascination with the modal harmony and melodies of sixteenth-century English music. His last orchestral and choral works, including Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9, were written in his eighties. When he died, aged 85, his interest in contemporary music and in professional and amateur music-making remained undimmed; there was a very real sense of losing not a forgotten hero but a dominant figure in the world of arts—albeit one that strode the English rather than the world stage.
After the appearance of the Mass in G minor, which so strikingly demonstrated his skill in writing for unaccompanied voices, Vaughan Williams produced a steady flow of secular and sacred choral music, often intended for amateur choirs, such as the evening canticles in C (the Village Service). Much of this music entered the repertoire of cathedrals and parish churches immediately; by the time I ceased to be a chorister, four years after his death, I was familiar with much of it. For the present disc, however, while presenting the G minor Mass as its centrepiece, we have concentrated on recording some of the lesser known pieces, ranging from the simplicity of Nothing is here for tears to the
astringent harmonies and sophisticated counterpoint of The Vision of Aeroplanes. I hope the disc demonstrates the enormous range of Vaughan Williams’s choral output, his ability to spin beautiful melodies, as well as his gift for word-setting and for evoking, as in Valiant-for-truth, the power and evocative range of the texts he set. Above all, it shows how a self-confessed agnostic can respond with total integrity to the strong imagery of religious texts.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. On his mother’s side he was descended both from the Darwins and the Wedgwoods. From them perhaps he inherited his sense of social conscience and, despite his patrician heritage, an affinity with ordinary people. A Charterhouse and Cambridge education was enriched by studies at the Royal College of Music. He studied under Sir Hubert Parry, and later Stanford. During these formative years he became friendly with a talented host of emerging artists, including Gustav Holst, who became a lifelong friend and a fellow enthusiast for the preservation of English folk-song. His early career was as an organist and teacher. During this period he accepted the editorship of the English Hymnal (he was later associated with the Oxford Book of Carols, for which he wrote a number of arrangements), an experience that had a profound
influence on his appreciation of the rich heritage of English music in all its forms, be it folksong, madrigal, or motet; it was also at this time that he first met Cecil Sharp and began to emulate Sharp’s interest in the collecting, and subsequent arranging of folksongs. Later in his life Vaughan Williams served as President of the English Folk Dance and Song Society that Sharp had founded in 1911.
Vaughan Williams’s war experiences affected him deeply, and unquestionably it had, for all the bonhomie that he exuded in life, a bearing on much of his subsequent music. In his later life he became very much the ‘grand old man’ of British music, yet he refused a knighthood—he did, however, accept the much higher honour of the Order of Merit, the personal gift of the Monarch. Writing in The Musical Times after his death, Sir Arthur Bliss wrote of Vaughan Williams: ‘[He] was always a searcher, an explorer. It was so characteristic of him to start his career with a work called Toward the Unknown Region and to write in his old age a symphony commemorating Scott of the Antarctic.’ Michael Kennedy, his biographer and lifelong friend, wrote: ‘What a rich harvest this wonderful man has left us, a musical testament of beauty of a breadth unrivalled in English music. He is part of the fabric of our nation, with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Hardy and Elgar.’
The fun of devising a recording programme is, in part, the discovery of neglected works. Such a piece is The Voice out of the Whirlwind, an anthem for mixed chorus and orchestra or organ, adapted in 1947 from ‘Galliard of the Sons of the Morning’, from Job, A Masque for dancing (1930). The verbal imagery in the choral writing is strikingly powerful, and the ending is particularly evocative. Valiant-for-truth (1940) belongs to a series of works on Bunyan’s Christian allegory that Vaughan Williams wrote during his lifetime, beginning in 1906 with incidental music to a play and concluding over forty years later in 1951 with the opera Pilgrim’s Progress. The motet, which has a zeal and fervour about it that is indeed almost theatrical, tells the story of Mr Valiant-for-truth’s journey ‘to the other side’. The optimism expressed in the final choral trumpet calls constitutes a remarkable piece of choral writing. Although written after the death of a friend, the choice of text was especially apt in that dark year of World War II.
The Mass in G minor dates from 1921–22, a fertile period for Vaughan Williams that produced The Shepherd of the Delectable Mountains, Symphony No. 3
(Pastoral), and O vos omnes. It reveals the composer’s absorbing interest in the modal harmonic language and contrapuntal textures of the English late Renaissance;
the music abounds in the ‘false relations’—alternating major and minor thirds—that are the trademark of Tallis and Byrd. Although steeped in that tradition, the music’s scope goes beyond that of a ‘distilled’ sixteenth-century style. Using a variety of textures—solo voices, solo quartets, single and double choirs—he achieves a huge emotional and dynamic range. There is something about the way the mass is written, with the gently rising and falling motif that begins and ends it, that gives a sense of it being through-composed. Certainly the mass works as well in concert as it does liturgically. Though dedicated ‘to Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers’, in its
early years it was associated with Sir R.R. Terry’s new choir in the recently-built Westminster Cathedral.
The Three Choral Hymns, with words by Bishop Myles Coverdale, were composed in 1929 for Division I of the Leith Hill Music Festival. Originally composed for orchestra, the present performance uses the organ for the first time in a recording of the work. There are three movements: Easter Hymn; Christmas Hymn; Whitsunday Hymn (the words of the second and third movements were translated by Coverdale from Luther). Nothing is here for tears was composed in 1936 on the death of King George V, using a text drawn from
Milton’s Samson Agonistes. It is typical of many short songs that Vaughan Williams wrote for unison voices or an optional mixed-voice chorus. He had an uncanny skill
at spinning a tune that was at once grateful to sing and rewarding as a melody to enjoy, and his unison songs and choruses were performed throughout the land in the days when every village seemed to have its group of amateur singers, as well as its Women’s Institute.
Undoubtedly the most technically demanding work of the programme, for the choir but most particularly for the organist, is A Vision of Aeroplanes, a motet for mixed chorus and organ composed for Harold Darke ‘and his St Michael’s Singers’. Darke, a renowned organist and friend of Vaughan Williams, had been organist of St Michael’s Church, Cornhill, for forty years; A Vision of Aeroplanes was composed in celebration of that anniversary on 4 June 1956. For this commission there was no need for Vaughan
Williams to tailor his music to an amateur choir, but the professional singers that Darke had at his disposal were certainly stretched. Fundamentally, however, the work is a tour-de-force for the organist.
In the contrastingly simple yet effective introit, The souls of the righteous, Vaughan Williams set words from The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 3. It was
composed for the Dedication Service of the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey on 10 July 1947. Beginning with a single soprano voice, the piece gradually unfolds with further solos for baritone and tenor above sustained chords, until a final outburst for the chorus, ‘For God proved them and found them worthy for himself’, brings the motet to a triumphant conclusion.
A Choral Flourish (Exultate, justi), for unaccompanied SATB chorus, was composed for a large choral event in the Royal Albert Hall in 1952. Although simple in construction, it displays the confident, semi-contrapuntal style that Vaughan Williams had learnt in his student days, and which infuses all the music heard on this recording.
Timothy Brown, 2009
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