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Work

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams Composer

5 Mystical Songs, for baritone, chorus ad lib and orchestra (or organ)

Performances: 12
Tracks: 25
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Musicology:
  • 5 Mystical Songs, for baritone, chorus ad lib and orchestra (or organ)
    Year: 1911
    Genre: Other Choral
    Pr. Instruments: Baritone & Chorus/Choir
    • 1.Easter ('Rise heart')
    • 2.I Got me Flowers
    • 3.Love Bade me Welcome
    • 4.The Call
    • 5.Antiphon ('Let all the world')
The five Mystical Songs are among the more successful vocal efforts from Vaughan Williams' pre-World War I years. The composer used texts from one of his favorite poets, George Herbert (1593 - 1633). Herbert was also a musician, and the composer admired him not only for his multiple talents, but because of his understanding of the nature of music. Vaughan Williams collected four poems (splitting the first one, "Easter," to serve as text for both Nos. 1 and 2), set them to music and applied the name "Mystical" to the assemblage, simply because he found Herbert's poetry to be rife with that quality. The songs are generally better served when the optional chorus and orchestra are used, though in No. 2, a more intimate atmosphere may be preferable.

The first song, "Easter," divulges its author's musical proclivities. Beginning with the second verse, Herbert uses a number of musical metaphors in his poetry concerning the passion and death of Christ. For example, he writes, "His (Jesus') stretched sinews taught all strings, what key/Is best to celebrate this most high day." Whatever mystical qualities Vaughan Williams saw here, he did not play up in his music, for his style in this song is closer to that of his lushly-scored, extroverted Sea Symphony (1903 - 1909; rev. 1923). And while there is a certain religious atmosphere, the overall style comes across as post-Romantic, intimately so in the middle section. The second song, "I got me flowers," as mentioned above, uses text from the second half of Herbert's "Easter." Here again, Vaughan Williams clings to a Romantic approach, though the music is subdued in comparison with the more grandiose "Easter." The sparse scoring in the orchestral version is largely limited to winds and harp. The one outburst comes at the end when the chorus (or soloist) proclaims "There is but one, and that one ever."

No. 3, "Love bade me welcome," at about six minutes, is the longest of the five songs. The text relates a conversation between the poet and Love. The style again recalls that of the Sea Symphony. The ending is especially beautiful, the chorus (a very necessary option here), singing wordlessly the theme from the chant O sacrum convivium, while the soloist sings the lovely (textual) close. The next item in the collection, "The Call," is the shortest. It divulges of mixture of stylistic elements, from the folkish character of the melody to the Romantic style of the writing to the religious sense of its serenity. The last song, "Antiphon," is perhaps the one in the set that most needs the larger scoring alternatives. Its exuberant manner, its ecstatic energy, and praiseworthy text ("Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing/My God and King"), provide a grand close to the set, but defy any suggestion of having a "mystical" manner.

© All Music Guide

1.Easter ('Rise heart')

Vaughan Williams had a special affinity for the poetry of George Herbert (1593 - 1633), in part because Herbert was also a musician whose works displayed a familiarity with the nature of music. The composer set Herbert's poetry in the five works that comprise the Mystical Songs set. "Easter" may be the perfect example from the collection to demonstrate both Herbert's connection to music and the kind of mystical poetry that attracted Vaughan Williams.

Starting with the second verse of "Easter," Herbert uses musical instruments in his text as metaphors. It begins, "Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part/With all thy art." Later in that same verse, we come to "His (Jesus') stretched sinews taught all strings, what key/Is best to celebrate this most high day." There are further such similes throughout the text, but it is Vaughan Williams' music that gives them another artistic dimension, though not in any mystical manner—the style here reminiscent of the vocal/choral writing in the composer's Sea Symphony (1903 - 1909; rev. 1923). While there is a certain religious sense to the music, it is largely Romantic and, especially in the middle section, intimate in character. This is the second-longest song in the set and it is best performed with the optional chorus, though the strictly vocal version is a bit more appropriate in the work's more intimate moments.

© All Music Guide

2.I Got me Flowers

Vaughan Williams used texts by George Herbert (1593 - 1633) in all five of the Mystical Songs. The first work in the collection was "Easter," which employed text from the Herbert poem of the same name. This is a setting of the second part of that poem, its title having been appropriated from its opening line. If "Easter" encompasses both the grandiose and intimate sides of religious expression through a richly Romantic style, "I got me flowers," while retaining the Romanticism, embraces a thoroughly modest yet impassioned manner.

It is modest in its mostly subdued dynamics and sparse scoring (largely for winds and harp in accompaniment), and impassioned in its subtle tension and final outburst when the final line, "There is but one, and that one ever," is sung resoundingly by the soloist (or soloist and chorus). The main theme, a mixture of the melancholy and the hopeful, has a slightly folkish flavor and is lovely in its mostly descending contour. The chorus is, as in all five of the Mystical Songs, an optional member of the performance forces, but usually included in concert presentations and on recordings for its one big moment at the end and for a short humming passage that precedes it. The soloist can effectively convey this song's intimate religiosity throughout, but the closing line needs greater vocal heft than a single voice can provide.

© All Music Guide

3.Love Bade me Welcome

This is the longest of the five Mystical Songs, lasting about six minutes—a slightly longer timing than that of No. 1, "Easter." But where the latter song is both grandiose and serene, this one is subdued and ethereal in manner, containing hints of some of the exotic moods that would appear in certain later large works such as the Serenade to Music (1938) and the Symphony No. 8 (1953 - 1955; rev 1956). Also, its muted string accompaniment augurs much of the atmosphere of the Pastoral Symphony, No. 3 of 1921.

The text, as with the other songs in the collection, is from George Herbert (1593 - 1633). Much of the poem depicts a dialogue between the poet and Love, and Vaughan Williams sets it brilliantly throughout. Again, this song falls into the composer's Romantic vein, especially as heard in his then-recent Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1; 1903 - 1909; rev. 1923). While some of the other songs in this set can be performed effectively without the optional chorus, this one needs it because the beautiful ending is eviscerated without it. Here, the chorus sings wordlessly with a soaring "ah" to the melody from the chant O sacrum convivium, while the soloist intones the words "'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'/So I did sit and eat." In many ways, this is the finest of the five Mystical Songs and is a genuine masterpiece.

© All Music Guide

4.The Call

While the Five Mystical Songs use texts by George Herbert (1593 - 1633), their collective title was strictly the composer's doing. Vaughan Williams set the words of some of Great Britain's finest poets during his long career, and Herbert's works particularly inspired him—in part because Herbert was also a musician with a special understanding of music, and also because he often found Herbert's poetry mystical, a quality that strongly appealed to him. This work, The Call, is the shortest song in the set, and contains perhaps the most beautiful, yet most simple melody of any of its siblings.

There is a slightly folkish character to the tune, which is hardly surprising considering the composer's considerable activity in the realm of folk music proper. This song begins with the words, "Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life/Such a Way, as gives us breath." The gentle vocal line is richly Romantic in spirit, but also has a spiritual quality in its subdued serenity and soothing manner. The scoring from the orchestra is sparing, rising appreciably in volume levels only at the beginning of the final verse, a climactic moment when the soloist ecstatically sings, "Such a Joy, as none can move..." All in all, this is one of Vaughan Williams' finer songs in the set, and its subdued and intimate nature is better achieved without the optional chorus.

© All Music Guide

5.Antiphon ('Let all the world')

This song, like the other four in the set, is usually performed with the optional chorus and with orchestra. Antiphon, in particular, would not sound nearly as effective without the chorus and with accompaniment reduced to organ. Its exuberance, from the scurrying strings of the opening to the rush of energy from all the forces throughout, yearns for greater expressive range and color. This song shares something in common with the exultant manner of the composer's Festival Te Deum (1937) and the final chorus of Dona Nobis Pacem (1936).

Using texts from George Herbert (1593 - 1633), Vaughan Williams fashioned one of his most exuberant vocal/choral creations here, brilliantly capturing the spirit of the metaphysical poet's words. After the energetic opening, the soloist (or soloist and chorus) enters with the words, "Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing (repeated)/My God and King." Vaughan Williams supplies an ecstatic, vigorous theme and mixes it with contrasting music of subdued but energetic character. After the soloist (or soloist and chorus) sings the final "My God and King," the orchestra rushes to a triumphant close. While the reduced versions of this piece are clearly less compelling than the larger ones, even they will convey the grandeur and exuberance of Vaughan Williams' inspired music.

© All Music Guide
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