Music For The Day

Ethereal, desolate, beautiful choral music by Vaughan Williams

From the hushed and mystical opening to the blazing fanfares and choruses which follow, the rarely heard oratorio Sancta Civitas (The Holy City) by Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of that composer’s finest compositions and a marvellous addition to the English choral music tradition.

I had the privilege to be at a performance of this work last summer as part of the BBC Proms 2015 season (a much better season, incidentally, than this year’s truly awful, themeless programming – barely one concert worth attending) conducted by the superb Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra and Choir.

Though it lacks the splashy, memorable tunefulness of, say, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (which also focuses on the fall of Babylon), Sancta Civitas is no less dramatic, with blazing brass and quickly moving strings as the chorus intones “His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns” – and “many crowns” crisply emphasised by percussion, adding suitably apocalyptic weight to these extracts from the Book of Revelation.

The offstage boys chorus, trumpet and tenor solo are also used to great effect – acoustically, this worked particularly well in the Proms setting of the Royal Albert Hall – and the piece closes in the same foreboding murmur in which it begins.

As Michael Steinberg puts it in “Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide”, describing the culmination of the piece:

And now comes the miracle in this great work, a new voice, a solo tenor, saved for this moment, and singing just sixteen words: “Behold, I come quickly, I am the bright and the morning star. Surely I come quickly.” Barely above the threshold of audibility the choir, ppp and parlando, responds: “Amen. Even so, come, Lord.” And with last recollections of the opening music, the vision of Sancta Civitas fades beyond our hearing.

Sancta Civitas is performed all too rarely, which is a great shame. The score possesses a rare, brooding, desolate beauty – particularly understandable, perhaps, given that it was composed in 1923-5 and had its premiere during the 1926 General Strike, so soon after the guns of the First World War fell silent.

Religiously speaking, this is an inescapably austere vision of the Holy City. No clouds and rainbows and reunions with long-deceased pets here; this is a vision of the Holy presence of God which strikes awe and no small amount of fear in the heart. Part of me responds positively to this – often the Christian faith today seems to be sanitised or presented in U-rated form, be it deliberately childish-sounding worship songs or watered down teaching of core doctrine. Sancta Civitas evokes something much more traditional and even severe, which in some ways is no bad thing.

Regardless: here is quintessentially Modern English choral music at its very best – but you probably have to be in the right mood.


Sancta Civitas - Vaughan Williams - BBC Proms

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Music For The Day

Богородице Дѣво, Bogoroditse Devo, “Rejoice, O Virgin” from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil).

Sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, under the direction of Stephen Cleobury.

Bogoroditse Devo

Rachmaninov Vespers - Stephen Cleobury - Choir of Kings College Cambridge

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Music For The Day

A flawed, beautiful 20th century masterpiece

Is there a more beautiful 20th century chorale than “Almighty Father”, the hushed invocation from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass? If so, I struggle to bring one to mind.

Almighty Father, incline thine ear
Bless us, and all those who have gathered here
Thine angel send us,
who shall defend us all.
And fill with grace,
All who dwell in this place.

Leonard Bernstein is my favourite composer. Several of his compositions make my Top 50 list – Serenade for Violin and Strings in particular, but also Chichester Psalms and Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety – and while other pieces of music by other composers often get more of a hearing on my iPhone, it is my contention that these Bernstein compositions contain some of the most beautiful (and profoundly human) music ever written.

This is certainly the case with Mass. As to whether Bernstein’s dramatic staged reworking of the Latin Mass works as a cohesive whole, my answer probably varies day by day and according to my mood. Mass is certainly transcendent, flawed, beautiful, stark, cheesy, smug, original in places, derivative in others and often achingly rooted in 1970s style.

The orchestral meditations, interspersed throughout the piece, have a uniquely haunting beauty of their own – particularly the first meditation, whose desolate questioning in the ethereal violin phrase followed by the slowly-building crisis and final, soothing, repeated falling notes on the organ are about as close to a religious experience as music has yet taken me.

A rather mediocre recording of the first meditation is here:


The complete recording of a recent (2012) performance of Mass at the BBC Proms is below:


Leonard Bernstein - Mass - Kennedy Centre

Leonard Bernstein

Music For The Day

“The world turns on its dark side”, from the cantata “A Child Of Our Time” by Michael Tippett

Performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis

The full work is below:

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Music For The Day


A Gaelic Blessing, by John Rutter.

In memory of my dear friend Andy Pook, who passed away on 2nd November 2014 and whose uplifting presence is so sorely missed, more than any words of mine can express.

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the gentle night to you
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you
Deep peace of Christ to you

Andy Pook Samuel Hooper SPS

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