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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Mass in G minor & other choral works

St John's College Choir Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2017
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2018
Total duration: 67 minutes 38 seconds

Cover artwork: Cover image © Garvin Hunter Photography, edited by Premm Design.

Andrew Nethsingha and St John's College Choir Cambridge mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice with a new recording of choral works by Ralph Vaughan Williams.


‘Some performances grip you from the outset, and this St John's College recording of Vaughan Williams's Mass in G minor is one of them … there are fine recordings of all these pieces in the catalogue already. But as a single-disc anthology of Vaughan Williams's choral music this new St John's College CD is formidably attractive’ (BBC Music Magazine)

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Vaughan Williams wrote of music as a means of ‘stretching out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty’, enabling an experience of transcendence both for creator and receiver. Yet—even at its most personal and remote, as often on this disc—his church music also stands as a public testament to his belief in the role of art within the earthly realm of a community’s everyday life. He embraced the church as a place in which a broad populace might regularly encounter a shared cultural heritage, participating actively, whether by singing or listening, in practical music-making. Such social concerns help us to fathom why the ‘confirmed atheist’ described by philosopher Bertrand Russell devoted so much attention to the composition not simply of liturgical music, but of a host of works associated in some way with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

It is surely no coincidence, though, that it was only after active service during the First World War that Vaughan Williams turned in earnest to the cultivation of liturgical music. Following his demobilization in 1919, a string of works broadly appropriate to worship appeared in quick succession (more than half of the music recorded here emerged during this period). Some pieces were commissioned for specific events, or were inspired by particular performers. But the role of the War in prompting the intensified devotional fervour apparent in many of the works he composed in its wake should not be overlooked. As a wagon orderly, one of Vaughan Williams’s more harrowing duties was the recovery of bodies wounded in battle. Ursula Vaughan Williams, his second wife and biographer, wrote that such work ‘gave Ralph vivid awareness of how men died’. It is perhaps unsurprising that in many of the texts to which he turned after the 1918 Armistice, the fragility and weakness of humanity becomes a recurrent theme.

Although Vaughan Williams supposedly drifted toward agnosticism as the inter-war years progressed, he was never a practicing Christian, and recognized the validity of all religious faiths. His heightened exploration of Christian texts, symbols, and images after the War might rather be understood both as an attempt to grapple anew with what might lie, as he put it, ‘beyond sense and knowledge’, and to search for consolation in religious and other inherited traditions amid a world irrevocably changed.

The influence of sixteenth-century English church music has long been heard in the searing, luminous Mass in G minor (1920-21). Doubtless its association with Richard Terry’s choir at Westminster Cathedral (who gave the work its first liturgical performance in 1923) has reinforced such assessments. Terry had garnered a reputation during the first two decades of the century as a pioneering presence in the revival of music by Tallis and Byrd, among others. Yet, Vaughan Williams’s Mass is stylistically more eclectic than has generally been acknowledged, as recent scholarship suggests. If its imitative textures and contrasts between soloists and full choir betray a debt to Renaissance traditions, its peculiar modal harmony takes inspiration from Debussy’s music. But the Mass is above all a major landmark in the emergence of a new direction in Vaughan Williams’s own, increasingly individualistic style, already apparent in such works as the Four Hymns for viola, tenor, and, piano (1914). The timeless oscillations heard at the beginning of the Sanctus recall the opening of A Pastoral Symphony (1916-21), which casts a long shadow over much of the interwar music. Extreme dynamics, such as the pppp found in the Credo, tell of a heightened search for expressive intensity. The Agnus Dei brings the work to a close with a suddenly impassioned, urgent plea for peace.

The Te Deum in G (1928) adopts an altogether more public tone, suitable to its composition for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury. The choir sings first in celebratory unison, after which antiphonal writing displays a characteristic play with space and resonance. A flowing 6/4 section brings contrast (with ‘Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory’). In noisier moments, this music prefigures the slightly later Benedicite (1929), especially in its almost strident attempts to muster exuberance. Muted prayers form a reticent and rather ambivalent conclusion, of a kind often found in Vaughan Williams’s post-War works.

The pale, mysterious motet O vos omnes (1922) is frequently heard as a companion piece to the Mass. A setting of words from the Book of Lamentations, it was first performed during Holy Week in 1922. The verses are sung by upper voices, punctuated by a solo alto’s expressive declamations. With ‘Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum’ tenors and basses are heard, darkly, for the first time. It is both a consoling and a disquieting entry.

Antiphon (1911) brings the ardent George Herbert settings, Five Mystical Songs, to their conclusion, shifting to a more immediate, present, joyous realm than that traversed earlier. The organ’s introduction mounts from a pregnant murmur into an energetic pealing of bells. The musical evocation of bells is often heard in Vaughan Williams’s works, especially at moments of conclusion. As in real life, they issue a call to act—to gather, to respond. They function here to underscore the choral culmination (where in previous songs the choir is limited to supporting a baritone’s solos). Voices and bells thus work self-consciously to enact the demands of the text—‘Let all the world in every corner sing’.

From Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes, Rhosymedre (1920) was dedicated to Alan Gray, Vaughan Williams’s erstwhile organ teacher. Perhaps Gray had encouraged a student for whom the instrument inspired limited interest, prompting the beneficent celebration of musical craftsmanship conveyed as this prelude unfolds. The tune upon which it is based was composed by John David Edwards (1805-85), vicar of Rhosymedre, North Wales, and had appeared in The English Hymnal, a project to which Vaughan Williams devoted considerable time as editor between 1904 and 1906. After a simple introduction, the hymn tune enters in the tenor voice, thereafter singing more roundly in an upper register. A quiet repeat of the opening communicates a sense of endurance and security in cyclical return.

O taste and see (1952) was composed for the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. The fragile, angelic treble solo with which it begins is a poignant reinterpretation of a melodic fragment present in many of Vaughan Williams’s early works, where it often appears in a more robust and jubilant guise. It is derived, in turn, from the hymn tune ‘Sine Nomine’, composed by Vaughan Williams for The English Hymnal.

Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1948) sets the texts of John Skelton (c1463-1529), to whose earthy, ribald poems Vaughan Williams had earlier been drawn in his 1935 choral suite Five Tudor Portraits. This work is different both in scale and tone, however. Composed to mark the centenary of Hubert Parry’s birth, the eloquent dedication pays homage to ‘the memory of my master, Hubert Parry, not as an attempt palely to reflect his incomparable art, but in the hope that he would have found in this motet (to use his own words) "something characteristic"'. It is indeed difficult to discern the influence of Parry’s music here. But in the beautiful, strange harmonic shifts, enlisted in the service of a nuanced and individual response to the text, it becomes a fitting tribute.

O clap your hands (1920) is the first of the two large motets composed by Vaughan Williams immediately after the War (the other forms a conclusion to this disc). Its clarity and simplicity mark the turn toward a new economy of means that characterized much of his music at this time.

More ambitious both in design and in expressive intensity, Lord, thou hast been our refuge (1921) combines a setting of Psalm 90 (in the prayer-book version) with the first verse of Isaac Watts’s poetic paraphrase of the same psalm. To the prose text Vaughan Williams devotes a dark, modal plainchant; to Watts’s poem he assigns the lighter, diatonic ‘St Anne’ hymn tune (which, as combined with Watts’s words, had been included in Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1861). The quotation of a popular hymn tune is a familiar trope in Vaughan Williams’s work, and points to his participatory ethos: he would almost certainly have expected listeners to recognize the tune and to follow its progression toward the final, blazing apotheosis (reminiscent of a similar ‘breakthrough’ moment in the earlier choral work, Toward the Unknown Region (1905–6)).

The hymn tune’s first iteration, in response to the opening chant, appears pianissimo, as though at a distance. An organ interlude later ushers in a more determined repetition of the opening chant, the choir now united. A climactic restatement of the hymn, reinforced by the trumpet, is almost unbearably dignified, and leads to the choir’s final, celebratory counterpoint—an aptly fecund musical response to the text’s pleas ‘O prosper Thou the work of our hands’. In its trajectory from darkness into light, this motet conveys a sense both of strength in the shared endurance of adversity, and, as so often in Vaughan Williams’s work, of salvation in the very act of making music.

Ceri Owen © 2018

No bombs can rob us of the human voice.
The voice can be made the medium of the best and deepest human emotion.

These quotations from Vaughan Williams date from the Second World War and from 40 years earlier. Of the eight friends who volunteered together for the First World War, six were killed (including his friend and fellow composer, George Butterworth.) Much of the music on this disc dates from the years immediately after the 1918 Armistice; the recording is released as we commemorate the centenary of that event. I hope the music will resonate with listeners of many nationalities. One thinks of the words of Eric Milner-White, written for the first King’s College Christmas Eve service in 1918, just weeks after Armistice Day: 'Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number.' Vaughan Williams returned from the war a different man—profoundly damaged and altered by the horror, desolation and futility of what he had witnessed.

For me it was a revelation to learn of the way in which the composer may have actively sought to create music that was not goal-directed, at least not in a conventional sense. Far from the oft-quoted Warlock description of Vaughan Williams’s style as being 'like a cow looking over a gate', in fact the meandering phrases can conjure up a profound sense of the mental state of a person with shell-shock. In his orchestral music, Vaughan Williams invests solo viola lines with personal significance; could the solitary altos at the start and end of Kyrie represent the composer himself, lost in a destroyed landscape, such as those where he had to collect up body-parts after battle? Many have written of the bleakness in Vaughan Williams’s music; at times there is almost no hope. I find the ending of O vos omnes especially emotive; after much searching and meandering, the startling harmonies and silences create both a sense of utter desolation and also an intense, unfulfilled longing for stability. The author of Lamentations bewails the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the desertion of the city by God. These sentiments prove singularly appropriate to the composer striving for meaning after the Great War. The music is left hanging, as at the end of A Pastoral Symphony. William Byrd had set a similar text some 300 years earlier in Civitas sancti tui, with comparable effect and personal significance. The Israelites’ yearning for their holy city served as a metaphor for Byrd’s longing for a return to Catholicism.

At the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908 Vaughan Williams spent three months in Paris studying orchestration with Ravel, after Elgar had declined to find the time to teach Vaughan Williams. It was far-sighted of Vaughan Williams to have gone to Ravel at a time when Ravel was considered by British composers to be a controversial, avant-garde figure. Vaughan Williams’s former teacher, Parry, would have been astonished and disapproving! Of his study with Ravel, Vaughan Williams wrote: 'He showed me how to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines. Manuel Rosenthal quoted Ravel as saying orchestration is when you give the feeling of the two pedals at the piano; that means that you are building an atmosphere of sound around the written notes—that’s orchestration.' It is also a felicitous description of what one is trying to achieve as a conductor of choral music within the liturgy, though one is not just seeking to build an atmosphere of sound around the notes but also a sense of the divine. I feel sure that what he learnt from Ravel later helped the composer to create the extraordinarily imaginative and numinous choral textures of Mass in G minor. As an extension of orchestration Vaughan Williams loved the acoustical, atmospheric possibilities in buildings like Gloucester Cathedral and utilised them in such works as Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. I have sought to make use of spatial effects in our Chapel during the Mass, with soloists’ positions ranging from close to very distant. For instance the treble and tenor solos near the end of Agnus Dei are sung from the far end of the Chapel—the sound of souls floating over the battlefield. When Mass in G minor received its German premiere in 1923, the Leipzig audience thought the expressive intensity of the music to be extraordinary. Vaughan Williams must have been pleased by this acceptance in such a place, not least because of his admiration for the Lutheran choral tradition.

Te Deum in G, written for an Archbishop’s Enthronement, conveys not only the pomp and ceremony of the post but also the prayerfulness. In the final section ('O Lord, save thy people') the text looks forwards but the music sounds nostalgic—perhaps a reminder to the new Primate of the long succession, past and future, of which he was becoming a part. The change from plural to singular in the final words of the ancient hymn ('keep us this day without sin … let me never be confounded') seem to suit the public and personal nature of the Episcopal role. In contrast to the ending of Stanford’s Te Deum in B flat, Vaughan Williams allows us, in his closing bars, to hear the new Archbishop’s innermost thoughts swirling around.

A few years ago we recorded a disc of Jonathan Harvey’s works. At the time I wrote that I felt commentators tended to downplay the significance of his liturgical works compared to his instrumental music. I have similar feelings with Vaughan Williams—during my background reading I have been struck by how much less has been written about the Mass than about various orchestral works. The same critical neglect used to beset Vaughan Williams’s songs. It is my belief that the Mass in G minor is one of the great British liturgical masterpieces of the twentieth century, just as significant and innovative in the choral canon as the symphonies are in twentieth-century symphonic repertoire. I know of nothing remotely like it in previous British a capella music. I hope that musicologists will come to share this view at some point in the future! As for the end of Lord, thou hast been our refuge, I struggle to think of any moment in the Anglican repertoire that has greater inner strength, visceral energy and sheer ecstasy.

Andrew Nethsingha © 2018

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