For SATB soli and double choir

Vaughan Williams wrote the Mass in G minor over a period of several months in 1920-21. It belongs to a series of works including A Pastoral Symphony that followed his experience as an ambulance driver in France during the First World War, in which he suffered the loss of close friends and relatives. 

Going back to the a cappella tradition of Tudor church music, the spirituality of this mass setting is palpable from the very beginning with its pianissimo five-note motif reminiscent of plainchant. ‘There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good mass’, Vaughan Williams famously said. But he also stated his premise that ‘the object of all art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties – of that in fact which is spiritual’. The spiritual quality of his mass made it particularly successful in a liturgical context. 

Although dedicated to his closest friend and colleague Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers, the work was premiered by the City of Birmingham Choir in December 1922. Its first liturgical performance took place in March 1923 in Westminster Cathedral under Richard Terry, a figure of great importance in the revival of the early English polyphonic school. 

The critical reaction to the work was largely positive: Terry highlighted ‘the practical unanimity’ of the press ‘in noting its devotional spirit’ and congratulated Vaughan Williams for his successful fusion of old and new: ‘In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere’. Thirty years later two parts of the Mass in G Minor, the Credo and the Sanctus, were sung in an adapted English-language version in the Coronation service of Queen Elizabeth II.


The choice of four solo voices and two choirs allows Vaughan Williams to introduce great variety in the texture of the traditional five parts of the mass. The modal five-note theme, with which the altos begin the Kyrie, is developed in counterpoint by the choir in four parts, while the middle section with its more intimate plea to Christ is given to the quartet of soloists, before the final section returns to the quiet supplication of ‘Kyrie eleison’, dying away with the initial alto motif.

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


Vaughan Williams responds to the words of the Gloria by varying tempo, dynamics and texture between the two choirs and four solo voices. A peaceful homophonic section turns into a jubilant antiphonic praise of God’s glory, before both choirs together respond to each soloist with a subdued plea for mercy, harmonically shifting between major and minor modes. The Gloria culminates in a joyful fugue for double choir.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te, benedicimus te,
Adoramus te, glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam.
Domine Deus, Rex caelestis,
Deus Pater omnipotens.

Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus,
Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe,
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. 

Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth peace to men of good will.
We praise you, we bless you,
We adore you, we glorify you.
We give you thanks
for your great glory.
Lord God, King of Heaven,
God the Father Almighty.

Lord, only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.
You who take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
You who take away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
You who sit at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.
For you alone are holy, you alone are Lord,
You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ,
With the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father.  Amen.


The Creed at the centre of the liturgy is the most elaborate part of Vaughan Williams’ mass. A vigorous canon evoking the almighty Father leads to an antiphonal recitation of the principles of faith. The mystery of the Incarnation and the story of Christ’s death is given to the soloists, answered by the two choirs in hushed homophony. The delicate melisma in the sopranos on ‘sepultus’ brings the music to a point of stillness, before a triumphant outburst in joyous triple time declaims the Resurrection. The soloists and both choirs are given the concluding declaration of faith in the Trinity in overlapping textures until the final choral fugue ‘Et vitam venturi’ proclaims hope for the future.

Credo in unum Deum,
Patrem omnipotentem,
factorem caeli et terrae,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.

Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum,
Filium Dei unigenitum.
Et ex patre natum ante omnia saecula,
Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine,
Deum verum de Deo vero.
Genitum, non factum,
consubstantialem Patri:
per quem omnia facta sunt. 

Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis.
Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto
ex Maria Virgine; et homo factus est.

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato,
passus et sepultus est. 

Et resurrexit tertia die
secundum Scripturas.
Et ascendit in caelum,
sedet ad dexteram Patris.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria
judicare vivos et mortuos:
cujus regni non erit finis.

Et in Spiritum Sanctum
Dominum, et vivificantem,
qui ex Patre Filioque procedit;
Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur
et conglorificatur:
qui locutus est per Prophetas.
Et in unam sanctam catholicam
et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
Confiteor unum baptisma
in remissionem peccatorum.
Et exspecto reurrectionem mortuorum
Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
Born of his Father before all worlds.
God from God, light from light,
True God from true God.
Begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father:
through whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven.
And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit
of the Virgin Mary; and was made man.

He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried.

And He rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
And ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of the Father;
And He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead:
His kingdom will have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son;
Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
who spoke through the Prophets.
I believe in one holy catholic
and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism
for the remission of sins.
And I look for the resurrection of the dead
And the life of the world to come. Amen.

Sanctus – Osanna I – Benedictus – Osanna II

The setting of the Sanctus for double choir opens with an otherwordly melismatic line in counterpoint for the female voices, while the male voices, split into four parts, ground the worship in a chordal affirmation. This musical illustration of ‘caeli et terra’, heaven and earth, continues with a fugal evocation of the heavens full of excited worshipping voices, which finally join forces on ‘gloria tua’. The first vigorous Osanna is antiphonal and, in accordance with the traditions of early church music, in triple time. The Benedictus creates an interplay between the soloists and the two choirs responding as one, while the second Osanna is more majestic and assured with its long soaring notes and its rapid crescendo.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Osanna in excelsis.


Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosannah in the highest.


Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Osanna in excelsis.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosannah in the highest.

Agnus Dei

The final part uses the solo quartet in homophony as well as counterpoint, the two choirs singing together, but also each taking turns in responding to the soloists in the prayer for peace. The harmonic shift between the first supplication for mercy intoned by the solo quartet to the second sung by both choirs intensifies the sense of anguish. The five-note motif from the
beginning of the Kyrie returns, first in the soloists’ fugal ‘miserere’. 

The third supplication for mercy, led by the choir, is much more agitated, before giving way to the calm prayer for peace. Both choirs and all four soloists sing the last ‘dona nobis pacem’ in homophony. The work ends with the alto motif from the opening ‘Kyrie’, this time on the word ‘pacem’, peace.

Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi:
dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Composer:  Vaughan Williams Wiki Link: Title of Musical Work:  Mass in G Minor

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

Pink Flowers
(20 March 2018)