Hodie (This Day) by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams’ fans often assert that he was England’s greatest 20th-century composer. There is certainly room for other views, but he was without doubt an extraordinary composer. He essayed almost every musical form, and in ample quantity, save, perhaps, for chamber works; his expression in each form was wide-ranging; and he participated in music-making at many levels. He knew, studied with and/or mentored, and respected, most of the major composers and musicians of his era, from his teachers-Charles Villiers Stanford, Sir Hubert Parry, Maurice Ravel, and Max Bruch among them-to his contemporaries, such as Gustav Holst, and to those who came later, including some among us today, e.g., Sir David Willcocks. His compositions and arrangements spanned the reigns of four English monarchs-Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, and George VI, plus six years of the reign of Elizabeth II-and two World Wars, in the first of which he himself fought valiantly.
Vaughan Williams was born to an Anglican rector and his wife in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney in1872. Interestingly, he was both a great-great-grandson of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the pottery dynasty, and a great-grandson of Erasmus Darwin- noted philosopher and the father of Charles Darwin. Ralph began musical studies at an early age, but it was not until early in the 20th century that he began successfully arranging and composing. He was fascinated by English folk songs, which he realized were endangered by technological and population shifts, and he began collecting and arranging them as early as 1903. Another early employment was supervising a revision to the Anglican hymnal, for which he was hired in 1906. Before WWI he became a contributing editor to the Oxford Book of Carols, still a standard reference for such music. He founded a music festival at Dorking, Leith Hill, which annually presented the Bach Passions, which he conducted until late in his life. He was still actively composing and conducting at the time of his death at 85 in 1958.
The Latin phrase, Hodie, Christus Natus Est (“Today Christ Is Born”) has long introduced Christmas vespers, and settings of that text have been made by dozens of composers. The original title of Vaughan Williams’ work, “This Day”, gave way to Hodie by his preference, but it bears only slight resemblance to those liturgical works. There was no commission, no apparent stimulus- simply the imagination of one whose own imagination was never still: Vaughan Williams had written a previous Christmas-themed work in 1930, and in late 1953 he mentioned his interest in another such work to his then fiancé, Ursula Wood, a noted poet in her own right. She replied that she had previously experimented with a pastiche of appropriate readings, connected by Gospel passages. Her experiment, soon resurrected, corresponded well with what Vaughan Williams had in mind, and, with some revisions, the work began; Vaughan Williams was then 81 years old. (His first wife, Adeline Fisher, died shortly before his 79th birthday, apparently of complications from rheumatoid arthritis.) Actual performance of the work did not take place until late 1954, at Worcester, and the Vaughan Williamses-Ralph and Ursula were married, privately, in February 1954– were on an American tour at that time; he first heard the complete work when it was conducted in London by Malcom Sargent on January 19, 1955.
Hodie is divided into 16 sections, identified by function: A prologue begins the work, and subsequent movements are titled “narration”, “song”, “choral(e)”, etc., each in accordance with its function, ending with an “epilogue”. The work was dedicated to Herbert Howells, another 20th-century English composer: Vaughan Williams wrote to him, apologizing that he had inadvertently duplicated a phrase from one of Howells’ works. Howells wrote back, “… I have the score of “This Day” safely. Nothing has touched me more than its dedication-Bless you. Our love to both. Affec. Herbert”. Ursula noted later, “ When it came to the point, neither composer could remember or discover which phrase it was in either work.”
As to the texts, all appear to be from English sources, although some are clearly anonymous, and one, credited to the late 15th – early 16th -century English monk Miles Coverdale, is actually an English rendering of a poem by Martin Luther. The most pervasive textual themes excerpt the poem, Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, by John Milton (1608-1674); the third movement Song and much of the Epilogue are from that source. The text for the Prologue, fittingly enough, comes from the Anglican liturgy for Christmas Vespers (i.e., Hodie, Christus Natus Est, mentioned above). Movement IX, Pastoral, uses the poetry of George Herbert (1593-1633), a Welsh-born metaphysical poet and rector; Vaughan Williams had also used Herbert’s poetry for one of his ‘folk-song’ works. The twelfth movement Hymn derives from “Bright Portals of the Sky” by the Scottish poet, William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649); this movement was added after the first read-through of the music, early in 1954, by a group of Vaughan Williams’ friends, most of them regulars with the Leith Hill festival. Eric Greene, reading the part of the archangel, complained wryly about having less to sing than ought to be fitting for a pillar of the heavenly hierarchy, and Vaughan Williams immediately committed to adding more. That task, however, was first delegated to Ursula, who searched for some time before finding Drummond’s work, which, she commented, met approval from both her husband and the archangel!
Perhaps the strangest text source was a poem, The Oxen, (movement VII) by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), best known in this country for his earlier novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles . After suffering more criticism for one novel than he thought reasonable, Hardy stopped writing novels and confined himself to poetry; The Oxen was written in 1915, when he was 75. It is tempting to reason, as some have, that Hardy and Vaughan Williams shared a religious outlook: Hardy was famously agnostic, and Vaughan Williams, notwithstanding either his parentage or his large output of church-related music, was not strongly attracted to church or conventional faith. But Ursula says this was a poem she and her husband both liked, and was not chosen for spiritual reasons.
Which leaves Scripture-the even-numbered movements II through X, and movement XIII, all of which utilize passages from Luke and/or Matthew; Ursula Vaughan Williams’ own works, especially XIV, the March of the Kings; and a text Vaughan Williams attributed, almost certainly in error, to William Ballet, a late sixteenth-century lutenist and composer (movement XI, Lullaby). Other authorities note that John Attey, of Ross-on-Wye, used the same words in a lute song published in 1622-a conclusion also reached, a half-century afterward, by Ursula Vaughan Williams. However, the text may antedate both of these writers. Hodie has engendered more than a bit of comment since its inception. Some have commented that it is rather unlike other works of Vaughan Williams’ later years; others have criticized its organization. But it conveys its message nonetheless. One critic remarks that it is “the bright counterpart to (Vaughan Williams’) Dona Nobis Pacem…”. Certainly it has the uplift, in both text and music, which we desire at this season.
J. R. Fancher, Oct. 2006