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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Information on Choral Works

Dona nobis pacem

Literally "Give Us Peace". Vaughan Williams' love of Whitman's poetry lasted all his life, he set the poet many times. This oratorio, a precursor of Britten's War Requiem, comes from the troubled 30s and sets parts of Whitman's Drum Taps, John Bright's "Angel of Death" speech, and sections of the Bible as an artistic warning. Parts of Verdi's Requiem (a work which deeply influenced Vaughan Williams) seem to hover in the background, particularly the soprano's repeated cries of "Dona nobis pacem" and Verdi's driving "Dies irae." "The Dirge for Two Veterans," a long, magnificent dead march, takes you to despair. The following "Reconciliation" and the final "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation" lift you into regions celestial.

Recommended Recordings:
Sheila Armstrong, soprano; John Carol Case, baritone; London Philharmonic Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CDM769820-2
Yvonne Kenny, soprano; Bryn Terfel, baritone; London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hickox. EMI CDC754788-2


According to the dictionary, the rather curious title is another name for a nuptial song or poem sung in praise of the wedded couple. It started life as a masque called "The Bridal Day" in 1939, but laid unperformed due to the outbreak of war. It was revised again in 1952 and eventually evolved into a cantata, being first performed in 1953. It is scored for string orchestra, choir, piano, flute and a baritone. Ursula Wood (later the second Mrs Vaughan Williams) was responsible for choosing the text of the 11 parts, which was taken from a set of 16th century love poems by Edmund Spenser.

Recommended Recordings:
Stephen Roberts, baritone. Howard Shelly piano. Bach Choir. Sir David Willcocks. London Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI British Composers Series CDM764730-2

Fantasia on Christmas Carols

For Vaughan Williams, "light" never meant "slight." This short work, which stitches together both the familiar and the new, captures Christmas like few other works not by Vaughan Williams. From the opening singing cello and the solo baritone telling us of "the Truth sent from above" to the choir fading in the distance, wishing us all a happy New Year, the Christmas of country folk is celebrated and honored. Forget the lawn decorations, the last-minute rush for gifts, and the Las Vegas lounge singers crooning "Frosty the Snowman" on the parade of TV specials. If you don't go to church, play this.

Recommended Recordings:
John Barrow, baritone; Choir of Guildford Cathedral; String Orchestra; Barry Rose. EMI CDM769872-2

Five Mystical Songs

For baritone, choir, and orchestra. Written around the period of the Tallis Fantasia, these songs, on poems by the English metaphysical George Herbert, share some of the intensity of the more famous work, but with added color. Vaughan Williams set some of the greatest poetry in the English literature, usually in very surprising ways. On the page, the surface of George Herbert's poetry seems simple and straightforward. Vaughan Williams is no less direct, but the songs take on an astonishing depth and passion and fully live up to their billing as "mystical." The best recording has recently been reissued, and so should be easier to find.

Recommended Recordings:
John Shirley-Quirk, baritone; Choir of King's College, Cambridge; English Chamber Orchestra; David Willcocks. EMI CDM565588-2

Five Tudor Portraits

An oratorio based on poems by John Skelton. A very great, but very odd work. It consists of one conventional song (a beautiful love serenade) and four dramatic scenas, each a portrait in music: a drunken woman, a clerk not particularly loved by the poet, a schoolgirl lamenting the death of her pet sparrow, and a Renaissance spiv. The work could only have been written in our century, but it avoids the usual modernistic paths. It sounds like nobody else. Actually, it seems to transcend time, a trick that Vaughan Williams brought off again and again. The extended "Jane Scroop (Her Lament for Philip Sparrow)," almost half the work, shows the broken heart of a little girl and goes straight to our own.

Recommended Recordings:
Elizabeth Bainbridge, contralto; John Carol Case, baritone; The Bach Choir; New Philharmonia Orchestra; David Willcocks. EMI CDC749023-2

In Windsor Forest

Vaughan Williams wrote five operas, none of which has held the stage. He described the fickle audiences of the time as "wanting all plum and no cake"; it's our loss. This is a short cantata made up of pieces from his Falstaff opera, "Sir John in Love". The opera is one gorgeous tune after another. The cantata presents five of them, including the extended scena of Falstaff and the fairies. EMI recorded this once, with Norman Del Mar conducting. You can get this in Europe on CD, United States people aren't so lucky. Badger the company for a U.S. CD release.

Recommended Recordings:
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Norman Del Mar. EMI CDM565131-2


When Gustav Holst died in 1934, Vaughan Williams lost his greatest friend. He missed Holst for the rest of his life and, in my opinion, invoked his spirit in several works of the 1930s and 1940s. This is one, written in 1932. It looks back to the Holst of The Hymn of Jesus – spare, concerned with both the otherness and timelessness of the religious past. For contralto, solo flute (appearing as the Holy Ghost), women's choir, and orchestra. The work has made it to recording very rarely, the Hyperion recording seems to be the only one currently in print.

Recommended Recordings:
Helen Watts, contralto; Christopher Hyde-White, flute; Ambrosian Singers; Orchestra Nova of London; Meredith Davies. EMI CDM769962-2
Catherine Wyn-Rogers, alto; Corydon Singers; City of London Sinfonia; Matthew Best, cond. Hyperion CDA66569

The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune

More of the "public" music of Vaughan Williams. He wrote it for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This is, of course, one of the greatest chorale tunes in the world as well as one of the best known, and Vaughan Williams wanted the congregation of peers to join in, thus showing his idealism. The noble lords predictably made hash of their unison part, but who cares? It's a marvelous ceremonial piece and in a verse set with choir and solo trumpet soaring into the empyrean, something more.

Recommended Recordings:
Choir of Winchester Cathedral and Waynefleet Singers; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; David Hill. Argo 436120-2

On Wenlock Edge

Probably the major setting of A.E. Housman, this work showed up as part of the Housman craze among composers in the early part of the century. It has survived as music, rather than as an historical curiosity, because of its sheer quality, and it makes you regret that Vaughan Williams did not write more songs. Although he later orchestrated it and preferred the orchestrated version, I find the original, written for piano quintet and tenor, far more inventive, incisive, and effective in its sonorities. The orchestration reminds me of a watercolor version of a Rembrandt etching. The setting of "Is my team plowing" almost bursts the limits of song with its great dramatic power. Ian Partridge, and the Music Group of London give the definitive performance. For the orchestral version, try Gerald English conducted by David Measham.

Recommended Recordings:
Ian Partridge, tenor; Music Group of London; EMI CDM69170-2
Gerald English, tenor; West Australian Symphony Orchestra; David Measham. Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2062

Sancta Civitas

My favorite Vaughan Williams oratorio, and, again, an oddity. Described by the composer as an oratorio for "solo tenor and baritone, semi-chorus, distant chorus and orchestra". The text is a setting of parts of the Book of Revelation, the score is prefaced by a famous passage from Plato's Phaedo in the original Greek. Translated, it reads as follows:

"A man of sense will not insist that all things are exactly as I have described them. But … he will believe that something of the kind is true of the soul and her habitations … and that it is worthwhile to stake everything on this belief. The risk is an honorable one."
Music and perhaps poetry probably were, for Vaughan Williams, religion. It's an agnostic's oratorio, dramatic as Walton's (later) Belshazzar's Feast, with a monumentality missing from the latter work. It begins with music that suspends time and ends, after the visions of the Four Horsemen and the waters of life, abruptly. It's as if we have the torso of something, and the very incompleteness of the work reinforces the impression of grand spaces felt, but not seen. The music is every bit a match for the text.
Ian Partridge, the tenor, has one appearance at the end of the Willcocks recording for perhaps two or three measures, (which nevertheless will haunt you).

Recommended Recordings:
Philip Langridge, tenor; Bryn Terfel, baritone; London Symphony Chorus, Choristers of St Pauls; London Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hickox. EMI CDC754788 2
Ian Partridge, tenor; John Shirley-Quirk, baritone; Boys of King's College Choir, Cambridge; The Bach Choir; London Symphony Orchestra; David Willcocks. EMI CDM769949-2

Serenade to Music

Some define a masterpiece as a work which raises the bar of your expectations. You can't believe music is really so beautiful. The fact that Vaughan Williams wrote this as an occasional work (for the conductor Henry Wood's jubilee) amazes me. The Serenade, for orchestra and 16 solo singers associated with Wood (with each part, by the way, characteristic of the singer it was written for: the staff lines are marked with the singers' initials), sets the Belmont scene from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice". It begins with "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank … ".
Vaughan Williams chose his text with genius and produced one of the great and most natural settings of iambic pentameter in the literature. The work destroys the argument that great poetry is unsuitable for music. Musically, it looks forward to the sound of the Fifth Symphony. Every note goes straight to the soul.
The piece was too good to throw away after a single occasion and yet demanded unusual forces, so the composer made two arrangements, one for orchestra and 4-part choir and one for orchestra alone. The instrumental version pales beside the original, and I can't call it a success. The choral version misses the subtle shifts of color in the vocal line provided by 16 different singers. Surprisingly, all versions have been recorded several times, but the original is the best. Adrian Boult leads the best modern recording of this (Henry Wood's version with the original singers is available; I'm not much on historic pops and crackles).

Recommended Recordings:
Soloists: Norma Burrowes, Sheila Armstrong, Susan Longfield, Meriel Dickinson, Ian Partridge, John Carol Case, John Noble, Christopher Keyte, et al. London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CDC747218-2

Hodie or "On This Day"

Originally titled "This Day", Vaughan Williams later preferred to call it "Hodie" which means the same thing. The composer's most elaborate Christmas celebration, this is another "anthology oratorio," the bright counterpart to Dona nobis pacem, much as Britten's Spring Symphony is to the War Requiem. This time, the texts come from Gospels, Milton, Hardy (Christmas is for agnostics, too), and George Herbert, among others. You nestle in the warmth of this work and invigorate yourself in the bright excitement of it as well. Probably the best recording – the first – features John Shirley-Quirk, Richard Lewis, and the glorious Janet Baker in her prime, all led by David Willcocks.

Recommended Recordings:
Janet Baker, mezzo; Richard Lewis, tenor; John Shirley-Quirk, baritone; The Bach Choir; Choristers of Westminster Abbey; London Symphony Orchestra; David Willcocks. EMI CDM769872-2

Toward the Unknown Region

"Darest thou now, O Soul, walk out with me toward the unknown region?" This early Whitman setting for chorus and orchestra shows the influence of Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens and, through him, of Brahms' Schicksalslied and Alt-Rhapsodie. Though early, it shows Vaughan Williams' ability to construct long musical paragraphs and clearly points to a major symphonist. It also shows his uncanny ability to produce an almost-physical turning of a listener's mind. He does this right at the beginning with the word "walk." You have to hear it to believe it, I guess.
Boult and Sargent both led beautiful performances on EMI, now out of print. David Hill on Argo is good, if not inspiring. Bryden Thomson on Chandos is now the current best bet.

Recommended Recordings:
London Philharmonic Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CDM769949-2
Choir of Winchester Cathedral; Waynefleet Singers; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; David Hill. Argo 436120-2
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Bryden Thomson. Chandos CHAN8796

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