The Five Mystical Songs
for baritone and orchestra were written in 1911. The following year Vaughan Williams began what sounds like a smaller-scale companion piece, the Four Hymns
for solo tenor, solo viola and strings. Though completed in 1914, the war delayed performance until 1920. It is a beautiful work with several interesting features. Is VW really given enough credit as the first English composer to set consistently only the finest literature to music? Do we place him as prominently as he deserves in the vanguard of the Purcell revival? The first hymn, ‘Lord! Come away!’ testifies eloquently to the composer’s love of Purcellian declamation. The text by Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667), Bishop of Down and Connor, is variously subtitled ‘The Second Hymn for Advent’ and ‘Christ’s coming to Jerusalem in triumph’; hence the processional character of the second part. ‘Who is this fair one’ is a dialogue for two voices—the solo tenor and the solo viola with its intimate, communing character (it was always on of VW’s favourite sonorities). As for Isaac Watts (1674–1748), one of whose hymns this is, A E Housman, reading Dr Johnson’s rhetorical question ‘If true poetry is not to be found in Pope, where is it to be found?’ replied ‘It is to be found, Dr Johnson, in Dr Watts’. We all know Watts as the author of When I survey the wondrous Cross and O God, our help in ages past
The setting of Richard Crashaw’s ‘Come Love, come Lord’ breathes that spirit of mystical remoteness later to inform (on a wider canvas) A Pastoral Symphony—a perception of
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.
The finale, ‘Evening Hymn’ (a translation from the Greek by the then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges), is a brilliant contrapuntal tour de force whose not least remarkable feature is its pre-echoes (in its seven-note bell-like basso ostinato) of Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, composed in 1917. There are two themes—the ‘bells’ and a viola tune, soon taken up by the tenor—but the distinctions between them quickly become blurred as the hymn gains in warmth, intensity and complexity. In a long-drawn fade-out it is the bells that have the last word.
from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1993