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.