A few months ago, I was asked by my friend if I would attend a concert with him. It was a chorale that included the music of both Ralph Vaughan Williams and Francis Poulenc. As described here at the L.A. Phil's Website, the program's intention was to bring these contemporaneous composers together and contrast their music. It was Vaughan Williams' "5 Mystical Songs" that caught my attention that evening. Unfortunately, in part at least, I think this was due to my limited knowledge of classical/choir music. What I mean is that I have had limited exposure to various sub-genres within the broad category of classical music. It seems that so much of what we hear of popular classical music tends to have originated from continental Europe. German or Italian operas for instance often play on local classical radio stations. When I heard Vaughan Williams, an English composer, I became rather excited because it seemed extraordinarily fresh and unique to me. As critics will say about his music, there is something very English about it. While, I cannot pretend to have the musical expertise to say why this might be the case, I will submit that for me it is the folk quality of "5 Mystical Songs" that presented itself as something characteristic of English music. Perhaps this is the result of the import of continental classical music into a country well-steeped in folk music dating as far back as the 400s.
The lyrics of "5 Mystical Songs" are derived from George Herbert's 1667 The Temple. Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations.
Although the subject matter of these songs put them into to the sacred category, I feel like Herbert's lyrics differ from other sacred music/hymns that are better known. There is a more personal quality here as the lyrics describe a personal experience, namely the experience of discovering Jesus has risen on Easter day, rather than describing the event itself. Thus the lyrics often concern the interaction with nature and importantly how a sensory experience is heightened by the realization of the event. Take for example the lyrics in, "I've Got Me flowers":
- I got me flowers to strew thy way;
- I got me boughs off many a tree:
- But thou wast up by break of day,
- And brought'st thy sweets along with thee.
- The Sun arising in the East,
- Though he give light, and the East perfume;
- If they should offer to contest
- With thy arising, they presume.
- Can there be any day but this,
- Though many suns to shine endeavour?
- We count three hundred, but we miss:
- There is but one, and that one ever.
- Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
- Pleasant and long:
- Or since all music is but three parts vied,
- And multiplied; O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
- And make up our defects with his sweet art.
I highly encourage you to view/listen to the video below. It features the first few parts of the "5 Mystical Songs"