Movement 1: Agnus Dei
Movement 2: Beat! beat! drums!
Movement 3: Reconciliation Word over all, beautiful as the sky
Sir Thomas Allen (baritone), Judith Howarth (soprano), Corydon Singers, Corydon Orchestra, Matthew Best (conductor)
Movement 4: Dirge for two veterans The last sunbeam
Movement 5: The Angel of Death has been abroad
In the event, Vaughan Williams’s warnings and entreaties went unheeded. But the humanitarian warmth and splendour of his vision remains; and, after all, if the day ever dawns when composers fail to speak out through the medium of their art against mankind’s seemingly illimitable folly and wickedness, we shall be in a poor way, to put it mildly.
1) The soprano solo leads the forces of apprehensive humanity (the chorus) in their quest for peace. At the end the drums of war are heard in the far distance.
2) War erupts: nothing and nobody is inviolate. The Whitman setting is dominated by beating drums and blowing bugles, inbuilt in the music even when the text isn’t directly referring to them. In an inspired transition (Vaughan Williams no less than Britten was a master of the seamless scene-change) the drums of war turn into the lapping, laving rhythms of …
3) Reconciliation. The ‘enemy’ is dead—‘a man as divine as myself’, as in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’—and music of transcendent beauty and simplicity warms and cleanses the world.
4) Dirge for Two Veterans. A second drum-study. This time the drums are not of war but of its aftermath—death, and burial. Vaughan Williams based this movement on an earlier setting of the same words made before his mature style had crystallized. This works to his advantage since the music has a kind of rude solidity and strength which a more sophisticated musical language might have mellowed. It would be easy to sentimentalize Whitman here, and this Vaughan Williams resolutely avoids.
5) The ostinato bass which plays out the ‘veterans’ now plays in the Angel of Death. The snorting of Dan’s horses momentarily recalls the apocalyptic equine visions of Sancta Civitas, but these are soon dispelled by one of the work’s most magical moments, the solo baritone’s reassuring ‘O man, greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee’. Chorus basses intone the great text from Micah, almost every word a poem: ‘Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ The word spreads among all instruments and tongues in prospect of a New Jerusalem: bells ring out in a riotous succession of keys and peals, and what better than C major for the Christmas climax: ‘On earth peace, goodwill toward men’? As the sounds of the heavenly host move out of earshot the soprano solo rises from them with a final reiteration of her entreaty: hers alone is the voice that lingers at the end like a solitary ray of hope, a light in the night.
from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1993