Vaughn Williams] was taught to read by his grandmother from the
same book with which she had instructed her younger brother, Charles
Darwin. There was a great kerfuffle among the family - like everywhere
else - when The Origin of Species was published, and Ralph, when
he was about seven, asked his mother about it. His mother was extremely
sensible. She said, "The Bible tells us that God made the world
in six days. Great-uncle Charles thinks it took rather longer. But
we needn't worry - it is equally wonderful either way."
From The Book of Musical Anecdotes
sense of the miraculous in life, nature and the divine permeates
much of Ralph Vaughan Williams' choral music, and can transmit itself
to listeners in a quantum leap. The music department of the university
I attended hosted a yearly Christmas festival called the Feast of
Lights, where classical and traditional Christmas music were sung
oratorio-style in the university chapel with either organ or orchestral
accompaniment. The musical selections changed each year. One of
the final numbers in my senior year was "Ring out, ye crystal
spheres," the Epilogue from Vaughan Williams' Hodie.
On hearing this music, it felt as though the world and eternity
literally parted before my ears. I have been hooked on that composer's
choral works in general, and this one in particular, ever since.
the last three symphonies, Hodie (which translates
as "this day" and is pronounced "HO-dee-ay")
was a product of Vaughan Williams' old age, and like those works,
it flows with a vitality, force and inventiveness that belies concessions
to any infirmity or impairment. Written in 1953-4 and first performed
at the Three Choirs Festival in Worchester Cathedral on September
8, 1954, it is one of the most serene compositions Vaughan Williams
ever wrote, sounding at times otherworldly.
composer had always wanted to write a large-scale Christmas work,
and here he not only got his wish, but perfectly fused the religious
spirit of the festival with the specially British overtones with
associations to carols sung around the Hertesford countryside. Like
Bartók before him, Vaughan Williams uses no specific folk
tunes in this work, but by this point in his career he had so synthesized
their character into his being that his folk tune-like themes sound
as in Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, is an "anthology"
work, the texts (taken in this case from the Bible, Milton and Thomas
Hardy, among other sources) skillfully selected to reflect both
the Christmas theme and the different aspects of the composer's
personal style. The oratorio is linked together by narration of
the Nativity from the Gospels by boy choristers, accompanied by
organ - a compositional device used by Bach in his Passions, for
which Vaughan Williams had a deep love.
affection for this work permeates this performance, as well. Recorded
in 1965 under the direction of Sir David Wilcocks, and sounding
incredibly good in its digital remastering, it is one of those few
recordings that make a listener wonder, "How often do they
get everything right?"
mid-1960s were a halcyon period for EMI in terms of recording quality,
and the sound in many performances from that period has never been
bettered. In this recording, there is power and clarity, but also
a transparency, an almost palpable sense of atmosphere and an uncanny
feel for the undercurrents swirling through Vaughan Williams' music,
that were several of Wilcocks' hallmarks - all excellently captured
by the EMI engineers. Compared to this, the digital recording under
Richard Hickox, made 25 years later (and no longer available), sounds
London Symphony and Bach Choir perform as though on a holy crusade,
giving their all and making this music leap from the speakers in
the more bounding sections, and playing and singing will all due
reverence in the quieter ones. Not only that, but the delicacy Wilcocks
brings to this score allows one to hear layers of orchestral detail
left buried in the Hickox recording, showing this work to be as
inventively scored at times as the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies.
The percussion work in the Prologue and the narrative "And
there were in the same country" is particularly magical,
but this work is full of surprises
Choristers of Westminster Abbey and organist Sir Philip Ledger also
deserve special mention. These boys sing in the narratives with
a pure, beatific tone and a musical maturity far beyond their years,
which is a joy to hear. Ledger does not overwhelm then, but finds
the right amount of tone to accompany unassumingly without ever
becoming inaudible, and never lets his part become less than compelling
- a near-unearthly balancing act.
if ever there were a "dream team" of soloists to sing
this work, it is definitely here. Richard Lewis is haunting as the
angel in the first narration (an excerpt strongly reminiscent of
the Sinfonia Antarctica - and just as powerful and briefly
frightening). He captures the portentousness of the third narration
and the mystic quality of the hymn "Bright portals of the
sky" to perfection. The angel's part, written in a high
falsetto to make it more ethereal sounding, can be murderous for
terrestrial tenors to sing. Lewis handles it masterly, with no trace
of strain whatsoever.
Janet Baker's voice is sturdy, clear and exquisite in "It
was the winter wild"; she captures the darker twists and
turns that occasionally break through the pleasing surface of this
song with telling effect, yet shines throughout like a welcome beacon.
She is equally touching in the warm motherly grace of the "Lullaby."
Shirley-Quirk is quietly stunning in "The Oxen,"
the deep, beefy tone of his voice a perfect fit to Hardy's words.
He is equally pleasing in the Pastorale which follows, with
impeccable musical manners and an excellent reading of George Herbert's
poem. His performance of the third verse, "I will go searching,
till I find a sun," has an unforced yet gently resolute determination
that is touching, and builds to a stirring climax. And in the opening
duet of "Ring out, ye crystal spheres," he not
only blends exquisitely with Baker but also fully expresses the
sheer wonder of heavenly and earthly joy that Vaughan Williams (right)
evokes so well.
a preface to Hodie, EMI has given us Barry Rose's 1966 performance
of the Fantasy on Christmas Carols. Vaughan Williams
based this work, written in 1912, on four traditional carols - one
of which, "There is a fountain," he quotes in music
but not in text - and added fragments of other well-known tunes
such as "The First Nowell [Noël]," "A
Virgin Unspotted" and "The Wassail Bough."
not quite in the same league as Hodie, the Fantasy
is a charming and moving work - the perfect appetizer for the feast
that follows - and Rose, John Barrow and the Choir of Guildford
Cathedral make a good case for it. Barrow's voice is not as solid
as Shirley-Quirk's but is pleasant despite a slightly quavery quality.
Nor is this performance as clearly recorded as the other work. The
echo of Guildford Cathedral plays some havoc here, but once some
allowances are made, the ear adjusts to the enlarged spatial acoustic.
Hodie remains a miraculous recording, one in which the performers
are fully up to the vision of Vaughan Williams' music. Regardless
of whether you are tired of the Nutcracker, Handel's
Messiah or Bach's Christmas Oratorio, do not pass
up this disc. Buy it with all due speed. You will not regret it.
Lebrecht, Norman, The Book of Musical Anecdotes (New York:
The Free Press, 1985), 279-280, no. 651.
does not like Christmas
music in general, but he can handle BBV (Bach, Britten and Vaughn
Williams) as long as it is good. Real good.
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