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CD Review

Ralph Vaughan Williams


  • Sancta Civitas 1
  • Dona nobis pacem 2
1 Philip Langridge, tenor
2 Yvonne Kenny, soprano
Bryn Terfel, baritone
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Richard Hickox
EMI 54788 72:58
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Tracts for the times.

Vaughan Williams wrote many works for chorus and orchestra, all spread throughout his very long career. The "anthology" choral form suited him: he enjoyed selecting and setting great texts, and the genre contains some of his finest work. He considered Sancta Civitas his own favorite of these pieces, perhaps because it is the most enigmatic and among the least popular. Elgar expressed his admiration for it and told Vaughan Williams that he had once considered setting the texts himself. Vaughan Williams typically misreported the conversation to his disadvantage.

"He told me that he had once thought of setting the words himself, 'but I shall never do that now,' to which I could only answer that this made me sorry that I had ever attempted to make a setting myself."

What Elgar actually said, according to Michael Kennedy (eminent Elgarian and Vaughanian), was, "I once thought of setting those words, but I shall never do that now, and I am glad I didn't because you have done it for me." Vaughan Williams characteristically deflected the compliment. He also felt ambivalently toward his great predecessor's music. On the one hand, he had studied it intently as a beginning composer and knew he owed Elgar a tremendous debt. His memorial essay "What Have We Learnt from Elgar," among other things, precisely ticks off what he stole from the older man. On the other hand, the Victorianisms clinging to Elgar's music and its idiosyncratic "associative" structure did bother Vaughan Williams. He once joked with Michael Kennedy (champion of both composers) that he would like to take "the best bits" from the two symphonies and work up a third. Certainly, this oratorio stands far from the long, purposeftread of Elgar's examples. It makes its points swiftly, sometimes to the point of puzzlement. It scores its most powerful effects through dramatic, even shocking juxtaposition.

Except in his music, where he has notes to hide behind, the composer gave little of his personal life away. Indeed, most of his explanations about his works mystify one even more. For example, Vaughan Williams prefaced Sancta Civitas with the following quotation on the nature of the soul from Plato's Phaedo (in the original Greek, yet!):

Now to assert that these things are exactly as I have described would not be reasonable. But that these things, or something like them, are true concerning the souls of men and their habitations after death, especially since the soul is shown to be immortal, this seems to me fitting and worth risking to believe. For the risk is honourable, and a man should sing such things in the manner of an incantation to himself.

The work sets excerpts from the book of Revelations, taken from various sources, including the Authorized Version and the Taverner Bible. So we have effectively a mysterious text introduced by a mysterious text. The music puzzles no less, probably more so for its first listeners than for us, but even if we can take Vaughan Williams' harmonic language in our stride, the forms remain odd and the meaning of it all seems just beyond reach. The work requires a full orchestra, "semi-chorus, distant chorus," and tenor and baritone soloists. The major solo work falls to the baritone. The tenor comes in only at the end with something like six decidedly non-showy measures. We race from scene to scene, lingering only to catch our breath before he snatches us off again. The music covers a large canvas, as befits the subject, but we whirl essentially from fragment to fragment. From the war in heaven to the fall of Babylon to the new heaven and the new earth in a series of quick outbursts and quick fades, the oratorio dies out with the tenor solo, answered by the distant chorus: "Behold, I come quickly, I am the bright and the morning star. Surely I come quickly. Amen, even so come Lord." The visions we have seen outrace us into heavens beyond us, and we are left not with knowledge, but with the memory of visionary knowledge lost and with benediction.

The attraction of such a text for Vaughan Williams puzzles as well. Bertrand Russell described Vaughan Williams at Cambridge as "the most frightful atheist." In the Thirties, Frank Howes, I believe, came up with the happy phrase "cheerful Christian agnostic." I take him to mean that Vaughan Williams didn't believe in any formal religion but (unlike, say, Delius) retained the cultural imagery of his country as a metaphor for philosophic enlightenment. It defies coincidence that so much of the composer's catalogue – from the Whitman settings to the ninth symphony – concerns the journey of the soul. Still, Revelations seems a particularly doctrinal text. I have two speculations to offer. First, one of Vaughan Williams' formative artistic encounters was with Verdi's Requiem, with its grand frescoes of Judgment Day. Sancta Civitas could easily be Vaughan Williams' take on the same subject. Second, Wilfrid Mellers brilliantly observes that Revelations served as a major source for both Bunyan and Blake, both formative influences on Vaughan Williams. Furthermore, both writers mine the source for not only religious inspiration, but for social commentary. After all, Vaughan Williams composed his oratorio during the economic unrest following World War I. Indeed, the work's première coincided with the General Strike. I doubt that Sancta Civitas signifies the General Strike, but it was certainly the atmosphere of its creation. One also marks, I believe, the influence of Holst's Hymn of Jesus (1917-1920), especially in its evocation of the mystical by spare, even austere means.

Dona nobis pacem comes from the early Thirties. The composer meant it as a warning against war. This led some early commentators to call the work "prophetic" of World War II, but the war Vaughan Williams probably had in mind was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The texts come from the mass, Whitman, the Bible, and John Bright – another anthology work. For years, I thought of it as the precursor to Britten's War Requiem but only because I knew of no other similar British "anthology" work on the same subject. However, I found out that Arthur Bliss beat out Vaughan Williams with Morning Heroes of 1928. So Vaughan Williams gets no prize for being first. Still, the work still hits with power, and, again, I feel it as Vaughan Williams' paying his debt to the Verdi Requiem. Consider this excerpt from Vaughan Williams' essay "A Musical Autobiography":

By that time I had quite recovered from my Gounod fever and had become the complete prig. Bach, Beethoven (ex-officio), Brahms, and Wagner were the only composers worth considering.… I heard Verdi's Requiem for the first time. At first I was properly shocked by the frank sentimentalism and sensationalism of the music. I remember being particularly horrified at the drop of a semitone on the word "Dona". Was not this the purest "village organist"? But in a very few minutes the music possessed me. I realized that here was a composer who could do all the things which I with my youthful pedantry thought wrong, indeed, would be unbearable in a lesser man; music which was sentimental, theatrical, occasionally even cheap, and yet was an overpowering masterpiece. That day I learnt that there is nothing in itself that is "common or unclean", indeed that there are no canons of art except that contained in the well-worn tag, "To thine own self be true."

Aside from the beautiful sense of the passage, note the "drop of a semitone" on "Dona" – Vaughan Williams does exactly the same on the identical word. A setting of Whitman's "Beat, beat, drums!" recalls, particularly in its use of the bass drum and its key shifts by thirds, Verdi's "Dies irae." The two works also resemble one another in their genesis: decades separated the first notes from the last. Verdi, of course, started with the "Libera me" as his contribution to a collaborative requiem for Rossini. The death of Manzoni inspired the composer to incorporate this section into a complete, original setting of the requiem. Vaughan Williams wrote the "Dirge for Two Veterans" in 1914, possibly as part of a friendly competition with Holst. Holst's setting, characteristically spare, for male chorus and brass, concentrates its power. Vaughan Williams produced a symphonic march, not unlike the finale of his "London" symphony, which has grand, dramatic sweep. That both the Verdi and the Vaughan Williams sections fit into their newer forms with no stylistic jar strikes me as little short of amazing.

In fact, even though Dona nobis pacem runs through a gamut of styles – from the neo-Brahmsian song of Toward the Unknown Region, to the energy of Old King Cole of the Twenties, to the power of the recent Fourth Symphony – it never feels like a rummage sale, perhaps because the word-setting strikes one as so right, no mean feat with the irregular cadences of Whitman. The oratorio falls into the following sections:

  1. Agnus Dei
  2. Beat, beat, drums! (Whitman)
  3. Reconciliation (Whitman)
  4. Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)
  5. The Angel of Death (John Bright, the Book of Jeremiah)
  6. O man greatly beloved (the Books of Haggai, Daniel, Micah, Leviticus, Psalms, Isaiah, and Luke)

"Agnus Dei" begins with the urgent cry of the solo soprano for peace. The section builds tension that bursts out with "Beat, beat, drums!" After volleys of percussion wild fanfares from the brass, reminiscent of Verdi's "Tuba mirum," the movement fades into "Reconciliation," "Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, / That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world" – a tender lullaby for all the dead. As the poet moves from the universal to the specific, Vaughan Williams changes his music to reflect the emptiness of grief. This leads to the powerful "Dirge." Then "The Angel of Death" gives way to a lament for the death of peace itself. This, too, passes, and we hear a strong call for peace. The final section, a forerunner of the passacaglia of Symphony #5, begins in Vaughan Williams' "pastoral" manner, here stiffened with a strong contrapuntal spine, breaks into a blaze of glory, and fades to the solo soprano's prayer for peace, this time another benediction. The oratorio's optimism turned out historically unjustified in the short run, but works of art that still speak to us have transcended history. The oratorio's hope doesn't come cheap, and, with Britten's War Requiem, it remains one of the most satisfying musical "answers" to the questions raised by war itself.

Great performances of both works at least make the words intelligible. Hickox's choirs master this challenge. Hickox gets rhythmic and textural clarity from his orchestra as well. These are exciting accounts, with grandeur and seemingly inexorable momentum. My one complaint – a large one, unfortunately – is Terfel. No question about it, Terfel has a gorgeous voice, and he makes a good effect in opera, where he mainly sings in languages other than his own. However, he apparently has never learned to sing in English. His English song CD, The Vagabond, massacred some fine songs that had done him no harm whatsoever. You can understand his words, at least, but his line is as oily as a tube of Brylcreem – with slides and scoops for no reason, perhaps, other than his liking for slides and scoops and general Schmutz around notes – and so mechanically conceived that given the first few notes of any phrase, you can predict how he'll finish. He's much better in Sancta Civitas than in Dona, perhaps because he has fewer opportunities to moon over the music. So instead of something the equal or surpasser of the earlier performances of Willcocks and Boult, we have merely something one could live with, like a potted plant, and it's all thanks to Terfel. Both Willcocks's Sancta and Boult's Dona were released on EMI Studio CDs – CDM769949-2 and CDM769820-2, respectively. They may no longer be around, but they're worth looking for.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz