Composed around the same time as the Sea Symphony and premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in September 1911, Five Mystical Songs set to music poems by the seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert. 

The visionary quality of Herbert’s religious verse and his use of musical imagery appealed to Vaughan Williams, who took the liberty of rearranging and adapting Herbert’s poems for his own compositional purpose. He placed two communal songs of praise first and last, framing three poems that are more reflective and personal in nature. 

The songs revolve around the Trinity, the idea of three-in-one that defines the Christian faith as well as music: the Holy Trinity is seen in parallel to the three notes of the triad which make up one chord, or as it says in the first song: ‘all music is but three parts vied’. The first four poems all have three verses, while the last song repeats the choral refrain three times. The songs are set for three elements: solo baritone voice, choir and accompanying organ.

1. Easter

The baritone takes the lead in expressing the joy of Easter, echoed by the choir, and elaborates on the idea that music is divinely inspired: ‘The cross taught all wood to resound his name’. The song ends with an appeal to ‘consort both heart and lute’ in the hope that the ‘blessed Spirit bear a part’
in singing the Lord’s praises.

Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen.
Sing his praise without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand,
That thou likewise with him may’st rise;
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, Just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part with all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name, who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

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.

2. I got me flowers

In Herbert’s poem this is still part of Easter, but Vaughan Williams turns it into an intimate song by the soloist reflecting on the mystery of the Resurrection. The choir is in the background until the final forceful homophonic declaration ‘There is but one’.

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.

3. Love bade me welcome

This song at the centre of the work portrays the sacrament of the Communion as a dialogue between Divine Love and the human sinner, anxious of being unworthy to be a guest at the table. Sung by the soloist, the two speakers in the dialogue are distinguishable by tonal and rhythmic differences, the reassuring confidence of Love contrasting with the anguished doubtfulness of the invited guest. The final acceptance of the Communion is underlined by the choir humming in pppp the plainchant melody O sacrum convivium, related to the Eucharist.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

4. The Call

The fourth song, for soloist only, is a simple expression of confidence in the presence of Divine Love. The melody is reminiscent of folk song. Written in triple time, each of the three verses describes three qualities of Christ. 

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.

5. Antiphon

The climactic last song bursts out in triumphant praise of God and music alike, evoking pealing bells in the main melody as well as the accompaniment.
The setting is for choir only as it portrays the joyous, collective voice in praise of ‘My God and King’, a statement repeated in fortissimo homophony.

Let all the world in every corner sing:
My God and King.

The heavens are not too high,
His praise may thither fly;
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Let all the world in every corner sing:
My God and King.
The Church with psalms must shout,
No door can keep them out;
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Let all the world in every corner sing:
My God and King.

Composer:  Vaughan Williams Wiki Link: Title of Musical Work:  Five Mystical Songs

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

Pink Flowers
(20 March 2018)