The Evening Watch
, H159 (Op 43 No 1), based on A Dialogue
by the English metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan (1622–1695), is a beautiful setting for mezzo soprano and tenor solos and unaccompanied eight-part mixed choir; it was written in 1924. The ‘body’ is represented in turn by tenor and mezzo soprano soloists, the ‘soul’ by the full choir. The piece belongs to Holst’s neo-classical phase, typified by such large-scale works as the Fugal Overture and Fugal Concerto, the Choral Symphony, and the opera At the Boar’s Head
. Works of this period tend towards a certain cerebral mode of expression as has already been noted in connection with the somewhat later Waddell translations. In this work much use is made of harmonies based on the superimposition of the interval of a fourth, often moving in ‘forbidden’ consecutives and parallel motion.
Holst includes a short footnote which states that ‘there should be no variation from sempre pp until near the end’, thereby ensuring that the music sustains a detached purity throughout. However, despite this apparently cool exterior, the composer consistently succeeds in illuminating the text in a manner that readily demonstrates his considerable musical insights and enviable technical skill. When, at the very end, the music gradually rises towards a final, emphatic fortissimo chord, the effect is one of a blaze of colour transforming a world of monochrome half-light. Throughout the motet the music representing the ‘body’ is unbarred and marked senza mesura, indicating that it is to be sung in a rhythmically free style.
from notes by Julian Haylock © 1989