The anthem for choral evensong in September is Antiphon, the last of the Five Mystical Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). This composition sets to music four poems by George Herbert from his collection called The Temple: Sacred Poems and was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1911.
George Herbert (1593-1633) was an English poet and Anglican priest. He wrote religious poems characterised by precision of language, metrical versatility and ingenious use of imagery. He is regarded as deeply influential and arguably the most skilful and important British lyricist. Some of his poems have endured as popular hymns, for instance The God of Love my Shepherd is, King of Glory King of Peace and Let All the World which sets the words of Antiphon, the title which George Herbert himself used for the poem.
In our service Antiphon is sung by SATB choir with piano accompaniment. Five Mystical Songs was written for solo baritone with a choice of accompaniment including piano and string quintet, TTBB choir without instruments or orchestra with an optional SATB choir. In a short introduction the rhythm settles into triple time and we hear the powerful motif of ‘Let all the world’ over driving downward quavers in the bass which continue through the anthem. The musical setting of the two verses is lyrical, in contrast to the triumphant mood of the chorus.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was a composer of 9 symphonies, chamber music, film scores – among others Scott of the Antarctic – and choral music. Among the most popular compositions are the Sea Symphony, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark ascending. He was a collector of English folk music and song and the musical editor of the first edition of the English Hymnal. It may be of interest that Vaughan Williams’ mother was the great granddaughter of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood.