I’ve been listening to the new Naxos recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sancta Civitas, an oratorio performed by David Hill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestral and The Bach Choir. Sancta Civitas is a good dramatic piece for blasting in the car. A lot of RVW, however, is wonderful for car-listening because of the extremes of quiet peace and fortissimo. Playing LPs or CDs of his pieces at home, I'm constantly lunging for the volume control.
A few months ago, I read an essay by the American actor David Hyde Pierce, discussing his love of music. He mentioned an LP live recording of (I believe) a Mozart piece which featured a spectacular wrong note. Pierce remarked that he anticipated the wrong note in other recordings but, of course, it wasn’t there.
I thought of that as I listened to this CD. In the David Willcocks recording, to which I've listened for years, the choir comes in a little too suddenly at the baritone‘s “And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude”. I wonder if this was a place where the tape was edited. In the new recording, the choir comes in more gently and naturally---but I still wait for that little jolt.
The whole oratorio, however, is a “jolt.“ Sancta Civitas is based on apocalyptic biblical texts and is faithful to their strangeness and promise. The piece opens with the baritone narrator and the chorus depicting a vision of heaven and the divine righteousness. Next, the war between Heaven and Earth ends with Babylon’s destruction. A beautiful section promising the new heaven and earth (the music is reminiscent of RVW's Job and Pastoral Symphony, written during the same time period) is followed by a crescendo of praise for God and his holiness. Finally the tenor (his only appearance) sings the promise of the morning star, and the chorus withdraws. The whole piece is less than 30 minutes long.
In RVW’s Pilgrim’s Progress, when the vision of divinity appears, it welcomes the Pilgrim after his long journey. One can feel the joy of God's mercy. Sancta Civitas sets to music the “flip side” of divinity, the mysterium tremendum. When angels appear, people don’t feel comforted by their sweet presence; people cower, as the shepherds did in Luke's gospel. RVW writes the choral sections in a way that their building and fading do seem like transcendent reality “opening” into finite reality.
As admirers of this piece know, the epigraph of Sancta Civitas comes from the Phaedo rather than the Bible: “A man of sense will not insist that things are exactly as I have described them. But I think he will believe that something of the kind is true of the soul and her habitations, seeing that she is shown to be immortal, and that it is worthwhile to stake everything on this belief. The venture is a fair one and he must charm his doubts with spells like these.” Michael Kennedy calls this RVW’s most personal choral work, drawing inspiration both from the 20th century and Tudor musical idioms and articulating a kind of (paradoxically) agnostic faith, that is, a faith expressed in an aesthetic but not creedal way. Other commentators including Kennedy note the time period of Sancta Civitas from the terrible years following World War I. Knowing its provenance gives both the alarming mysticism and the hopefulness of Sancta Civitas some context:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first earth and the first heaven were passed away: and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city coming down from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, having the glory of God…
And I saw a pure river of the water of life, and on either side of the river was there the tree of life; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations….