Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Year's Music: Vaughan Williams' "Sancta Civitas"

Last week I listened again to the Naxos recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sancta Civitas (The Holy City), an oratorio performed by David Hill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestral and The Bach Choir. I wrote this review for my blog in 2010, but I still feel the same way about the piece, to me, both moving and alarming.

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 into silence. The whole piece is about 30 minutes long.

In RVW’s opera Pilgrim’s Progress, the concluding appearance of Heaven and the angels welcome the Pilgrim as his long journey ends. One can feel the joy of God's mercy. Sancta Civitas sets to music the “flip side” of divinity, the mysterium tremendum, the fearful quality of holiness. In the biblical narratives, when angels appear, people don’t feel comforted by their sweet presence. People cower, as the shepherds did in Luke's gospel; they are afraid and protest the divine appearance, as Moses and Isaiah did. RVW writes the choral sections in a way that their building and fading and their dissonance do seem like transcendent, holy reality “opening” into finite reality, and the effect is disconcerting---though extremely moving. For instance, listening to the section "Holy, Holy, Holy" in the recording below, beginning at about 24:23. Similarly, to hear the tenor appear with the words "Behold, I come quickly, I am the bright and the morning star," when previously there had been no tenor solo, is quite otherworldly.

As admirers of this piece know, the epigraph of Sancta Civitas comes from Plato's 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 indicate that the time period of Sancta Civitas is the terrible years following World War I. (Note RVW's use of a distant trumpet in some sections of the oratorio, an instrument he used in the Pastoral Symphony to suggest a wartime bugler.) 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….

The sections are:

I was in the spirit (Lento)
And I Saw Heaven opened (Allegro)
And I saw an angel standing in the sun (Meno mosso)
Babylon the great is fallen (Lento)
Rejoice over her O Heavens (Allegro moderato)
And I saw a new heaven (Adagio)
Therefore are they before the throne of God (Poco meno largo)
And I saw a pure river
Holy, Holy, Holy (Andante sostenuto)

Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory (Poco animato)

Here is the David Hill recording to which I first referred.

And here is another recording, with the score that you can follow:

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