‘A guest, I answer’d…’ – Vaughan Williams, “Five Mystical Songs”

Five Mystical Songs

My recollections of undergraduate school are – like so many other phases of my life – inextricably intertwined with music.  I sang in a choir during college, and it was there that I became acquainted with fabulous composers and works that I might never have known otherwise.  In particular, as a theology student some of the works I was fortunate to sing were outward and visible signs of interior change and growth, and to this day they trigger not only great memories but also deep emotions.

In the early 1900s, Ralph Vaughan Williams set five seventeenth-century poems by English priest/poet George Herbert to music.  If you’ve ever perused a hymnal from a mainline denomination (especially an Episcopal one), maybe during a dull sermon :-), you’ll see Vaughan Williams’ name sprinkled throughout – a particular surprise if you also know that for most of his life, he claimed either atheism or agnosticism.  Even so, he composed some of the finest sacred music of the twentieth century, and these settings of Herbert’s poems are glorious.

The work is scored for a chorus with baritone soloist – I think every recording I’ve ever heard has had an orchestra, but it can also be performed with an organ or piano accompaniment (and this is how it was done when I sang the work).  The work opens and closes with triumphant and powerful pieces – the first song, “Rise Heart (Easter),” gives voice to the heart’s response to Christ’s resurrection, while the closing “Antiphon” is as excellent a praise anthem as you’ll hear anywhere.

But for my money (and theological taste), the meat of Herbert’s poetry and Vaughan Williams’ setting comes in the middle three pieces.  Herbert had a gift for articulating that curious juxtaposition between the sense of unworthiness before one’s Creator, and the unstinting welcome that the Creator offers to the created.  If you only listen to one part of this work, choose “Love Bade Me Welcome” for its tender uncertainty: “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.”  Whether we ascribe to a particular faith or not, I suspect we’ve all experienced feeling like the completely unworthy lover of a precious Beloved.  To that lover questioning who could be worthy to approach, Herbert responds that the Beloved rejects none: “You shall be he… you must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.”

The first recording I heard of this piece – and the only one in my collection for many years – featured Brian Rayner Cook as the baritone soloist, with Bryden Thomson conducting.  I found this particular recording from 1973 (paired with Vaughan Williams’ Mass in g minor, recorded in 1969) a few weeks ago, with the wondrous John Shirley-Quirk as soloist and the always excellent David Willcocks conducting the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, and the English Chamber Orchestra.

Sometimes when one is accustomed to only one interpretation of a piece, hearing a new one can be jarring – different tempi, dynamics, and such.  No such surprises here, thankfully.  John Shirley-Quirk’s solos are lovely; I find myself leaning just slightly toward Brian Rayner Cook’s interpretation, only because Rayner Cook (to my ear) adds a note of uncertainty, of pleading, of questioning, where perhaps Shirley-Quirk is just a little too confident.  But that’s a pretty minimal quirk (pardon the pun).

If you don’t know Vaughan Williams’ choral music well, this record is a terrific introduction to it, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed revisiting my college days just a little bit in cranking it up on my turntable.

~ L

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