Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Earth’s Wide Bounds
Leah Jackson (soprano), Joshua Ryan (organ), Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
rec. 2020/21, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD051 [78:05]
This programme has not been designed to listen to from end to end. The main event, the Communion Service in G minor, lasts for nearly half an hour, and there is another liturgical piece, Te Deum in G. The other pieces are hymn tunes, anthems and motets, and a secular but deeply spiritual Walt Whitman setting. I explored items in groups by genre, beginning with the hymns, all of which were arranged/written for the 1906 edition of the English Hymnal.
I was introduced to For All the Saints Who from Their Labours Rest and RVW’s glorious tune Sine Nomine at school assembly. (Mrs Gallacher did not take it quite as fast as the present singers, and, if I recall correctly, some of the eight verses were omitted.) One of the best-loved hymn tunes, it has remained a favourite ever since.
He Who Would Valiant Be, set to Monks Gate, is a popular setting of John Bunyan’s powerful words, based on the folk song The Captain Calls all Hands. The English Hymnal version of this text is used; sadly, it omits Bunyan’s “hobgoblins nor foul fiend”. I heard the voice of Jesus say is set to Kingsfold. The liner notes explain that the tune was “collected” from the streets of Westminster, and paired over the years with several texts. The present words are by Horatius Bonar, a Church of Scotland minister. The beautiful Let all mortal flesh silence keep was one of several texts that RVW set to a melody of French origin. Picardy derives from a carol JÚsus-Christ s’habille en pauvre, dating from the 17th century. The words are translated from the Greek liturgy. Vaughan Williams used the folk song Diemen’s Land or Young Henry the Poacher for G.K Chesterton’s hymn O God of earth and altar.
No introduction to Down Ampney is needed. Named after the composer’s birthplace, this powerful melody compliments well-known words by Bianco de Siena , translated by Richard Frederick Littledale. It is often regarded as one of RVW’s greatest hymns.
Now to the motets and anthems.The 1920 O clap your hands is a choral warhorse. It sets four verses from Psalm 47 in the Authorised Version of the Bible. The musical style has a clarity of texture. It is heard here in a version for choir and organ. The composer made an expanded edition that includes brass and percussion.
In the year of Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, it is good to see in the programme the flawless 1953 miniature O Taste and See. This motet originally followed the Sanctus in the Coronation Service. A.E.F Dickinson wrote that its perfect “sense of proportion and singable quality…made it, sung during the Queen’s Communion, such a moment of truth in the ceremony”.
The clue to an appreciation of RVW’s Prayer to the Father of Heaven appears in the dedication: “To the memory of my master Hubert Parry, not as an attempt to palely reflect his incomparable art, but in the hope that he would have found in this motet (to use his own words) something characteristic.” The work was completed in 1948, the 30th anniversary of Parry’s death. The text is by the Tudor poet John Skelton. The result is sonorous and dignified, “radically different” from the Five Tudor Portraits where RVW had set Skelton’s more earthy words.
I have doubts about performing Vaughan Williams’s Antiphon from his 1911 Five Mystical Songs as a standalone piece – but it is a very common practice. Whatever one’s opinion, it is a powerful and uplifting song of praise. The text is by the seventeenth century poet, mystic and priest George Herbert. The words “Let all the world in every corner sing: my God and King” are the triumphant refrain. This could have been the final number on the disc.
Valiant for Truth is a spinoff from Vaughan Williams’s near-obsession with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This motet for mixed chorus was written in 1940 in memory of the composer’s friend Dorothy Longman, who had died in June that year. There is no doubt that world events influenced RVW’s choice of words: Coventry had been blitzed and thousands of people had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. The piece ends with moving and optimistic lines: “So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”
The first track on the disc is Te Deum in G, was composed for the enthronement of Dr Cosmo Gordon Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury on 4 December 1928. The setting has unison passages counterbalanced by the antiphonal Decani and Cantoris, all supported by the organ. This means that choristers on the Dean’s side of the choir stalls “compete” with those on the Precentor’s side. Surprisingly, the setting is not all that popular in choirs and places where they sing.
No special pleading is needed for Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor of 1922. James Day has summed up this magnificent choral work: “The soft richness of the Pastoral Symphony and the solidity and power of the Tallis Fantasia are here pressed into the service of the liturgy, and from the stylistic point of view an excursion is made into the remote past in order to create something new.” Anglicans who were enamoured of this work had a problem: RVW had set the Roman Catholic Tridentine text. What was needed was an English version that matched the incomparable prose and poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. In 1923, the pianist, composer and conductor Maurice Jacobson came to the rescue. With a minimum of fuss, he adapted the Mass for the English words. The movements were rearranged, and music was added to accompany the Ten Commandments.
The liner notes ponder the Communion Service’s lack of traction in cathedrals and parish churches. My guess: as many churches have junked the Prayerbook Eucharist service, the batting order will no longer be appropriate. Even when the traditional words are retained, most will use a “Rite B” derivative which mirrors the order of Roman Catholic Mass. For better or worse, the Commandments are rarely sung in Churches these days. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reads them in this recording. This functions remarkably well: I would love to hear it in action during a special “retro” Communion Service. This is the premiere recording of this version.
The last track is Nocturne: By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame, an early setting of Walt Whitman’s poem from his collection Drum Taps. Strangely, this a cappella work began life as Ballade for string quintet. Two years later, it was revised as a Nocturne for the same ensemble. At some point, RVW made this choral setting. It was duly lost and remained undiscovered until 2000. Heard here, it is thoughtful and introspective, matching Whitman’s meditation about death and injury during the American Civil War.
The singing is faultless, and is complemented by a great sound quality. The booklet is typically excellent, with John Francis’s detailed notes on each piece. No dates are provided in the track listings; sometimes this information is not obvious or not even present in the programme notes. I have collated the dates with Michael Kennedy’s essential Catalogue. The texts are all here, and they have been conveniently grouped with the relevant note. There are biographical details of the choir, director, organist and former Archbishop. The cover photograph features a fresco from behind the high altar in St Jude-on-the-Hill church, painted by Walter Percival Starmer. There is no mention of the splendid organ. Originally installed by Father Willis in St Jude’s Church, Whitechapel, it was moved to its present location in 1924, and rebuilt in 1934 by Hill & Son & Norman & Beard. In 2002, the organ was overhauled and refurbished, with some additional stops.
This wonderful compendium of RVW’s choral music features some well-known pieces and a few rarities. Explore slowly.
Te Deum in G (1928) [6:47]
For All the Saints Who from Their Labours Rest (1906) [4:23]
O Clap Your Hands (1920) [3:06]
Monk’s Gate: He Who Would Valiant Be (1906) [2:00]
Communion Service (Mass) in G minor (1922/1923), adapted by Maurice Jacobson (1896-1976) [29:37]
Kingsfold: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say (1906) [2:15]
O Taste and See (1952) [1:25]
Picardy: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (1906) [3:03]
Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1948) [5:25]
King’s Lynn: O God of Earth and Altar (1906) [2:12]
Antiphon: Let All the World in Every Corner Sing (1911) [3:07]
Down Ampney: Come Down, O Love Divine (1906) [3:16]
Valiant-for-Truth (1940) [5:50]
Nocturne: By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame (1904/1906) [5:39]