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Five Mystical Songs
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'Vaughan Williams: Choral Works' (CDS44321/4)
Vaughan Williams: Choral Works
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'Vaughan Williams: Five Tudor Portraits & Five Mystical Songs' (CDH55004)
Vaughan Williams: Five Tudor Portraits & Five Mystical Songs
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'Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, Mystical Songs' (CDA30025)
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, Mystical Songs
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'Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, Mystical Songs' (CDA66420)
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, Mystical Songs
No 1: Easter  Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise without delays
No 2: I got me flowers
No 3: Love bade me welcome
No 4: The Call  Come, my way, my truth, my life
Track 5 on CDA30025 [1'59] Hyperion 30th Anniversary series
Track 5 on CDA66420 [1'59]
Track 5 on CDS44321/4 CD1 [1'59] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Track 4 on CDH55004 [2'17] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
No 5: Antiphon  Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing
Track 6 on CDA30025 [3'12] Hyperion 30th Anniversary series
Track 6 on CDA66420 [3'12]
Track 6 on CDS44321/4 CD1 [3'12] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Track 5 on CDH55004 [3'24] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

Five Mystical Songs
Anyone who grew up with the hymnody of the Anglican Church will have grown up with George Herbert. ‘Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing’, ‘Teach me, my God and King’, ‘King of Glory, King of Peace’—these all helped to teach us, little though we might have been aware of it at the time, that good hymns could also be good verse. Later one got outside the hymn book and recognized Herbert also as a fine lyric poet:

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
part of The Flower, from The Temple, 1633

Herbert (1593–1633) was for eight years Public Orator at Cambridge, and cherished hopes of preferment at Court. For some reason this did not materialize and he entered the priesthood, therein to spend a mere three years before death cut him off. The Elizabethan age was by then well advanced and Herbert was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare. The English language was expanding and developing, and the Bible and the Prayer Book—known, through the Church, to all sorts and conditions of men—became an important catalyst in the process. Both what Herbert said (like most Anglicans he tried to steer a middle course between Romans and Puritans), and the way he said it, strongly appealed to the Christian agnostic (or ‘disappointed theist’) in Vaughan Williams. They were both preoccupied with that age-old conflict between God and World, Flesh and Spirit, Soul and Senses: it has many synonyms, and at least one Vaughan Williams masterpiece, Flos Campi, was born of it. Vaughan Williams completed the Five Mystical Songs in 1911 and conducted the first performance in September of that year during the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester. Two years before, Walford Davies had produced a large work for the Hereford meeting by name of Noble Numbers, a setting of eleven poems by Herrick and six by Herbert. The latter included ‘The Call’ and ‘Let all the world’, both of which are set by Vaughan Williams in the Mystical Songs; their respective settings of ‘Let all the world’ (later done memorably also by George Dyson and William Walton), both spirited and vigorous, pick the key of D major, a Vaughan Williams favourite for this mood (cf. the Benedicite and the ‘Galliard of the Sons of the Morning’ in Job). Vaughan Williams did not care for Walford Davies, whose music is almost completely forgotten today; but he is a figure not without interest, not least in the way his discerning literary taste may have influenced his contemporaries.

Of Vaughan Williams’s five settings, three—‘I got me flowers’, ‘The Call’ and ‘Let all the world’—reflect the hymnic stance and metre of the poems. The first-named has a definitely Pre-Raphaelite quality which takes us straight into the orbit of Debussy, a composer whose contribution to Vaughan Williams’s musical make-up is apt to be overlooked in favour of Ravel’s. ‘Easter’ is more elaborate in design and Michael Kennedy is surely right to ascribe its richness of orchestral detail to Elgarian prototypes. On the other hand, ‘Love bade me welcome’ looks both more inward and (in terms of Vaughan Williams’s own development) far further forward than the other songs. The rapt stillness at its centre—the Act, at which point in the traditionally Edenic key of E wordless voices intone the ‘O sacrum convivium’—is one of the great moments in Vaughan Williams, like the sighting of the New Jerusalem in Sancta Civitas.

from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1990

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