The Call – George Herbert (1593-1633)/Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

This article was written for the September 2017 edition of the parish magazine.

Published in 1911, Vaughan Williams set the words of Herbert’s poem The Call to music as one of a larger work, set of Five Mystical Songs. This song collection used four of Herbert’s poems, published in 1633 as “The Temple: Sacred Poems”. Originally written for baritone solo (a deep rich male voice) it is now commonly sung by mezzo sopranos (medium to high female voice), and that is how it is most often heard in St Margaret’s.

Written in English, the text is:

  • Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
  • Such a Way, as gives us breath:
  • Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
  • Such a Life, as killeth death.

 

  • Come, My Light, my Feast, my Strength:
  • Such a Light, as shows a feast:
  • Such a Feast, as mends in length:
  • Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

 

  • Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
  • Such a Joy, as none can move:
  • Such a Love, as none can part:
  • Such a Heart, as joys in love.

It is a post-Easter celebration, in which Jesus first calls the writer/reader/singer to His Way (John 14:6), and is then called into our life, but never directly by name. Instead Jesus is referred to by his qualities, so desired by us: my Way, my Truth, my Life, my Light, my Feast, my Strength, my Joy, my Love, My Heart. Each of these qualities is explained in the song: the Way that gives us breath, the Truth that ends all strife, the Life that ends all death…

The first two verses are sung quietly as a gentle yearning. However immediately prior to the final verse there is a dramatic key change and crescendo, with the climax on “joy”. This is a joyful song. Christ is risen, and in him there is no death, only love.

I sang this recently in church, accompanied by our new pianist Misha Tyshkul. He was new to the piece, and took it home to practice. When we met to rehearse, he had suggestions mainly centred around the harmonies under the word “joy”. RVW had written a loud clashing minor discord, which Misha thought was inappropriate. Surely “joy” should be major and concordant? I can see where he was coming from. As a general rule, happy tunes and songs have major harmonies. But this song is post-Easter. Yes there is celebration, but follows so much suffering. I believe that is the bitter-sweet nature of the joy that Vaughan Williams was referencing when he wrote his harmonies. Misha and I tried it both ways, major concord and minor discord, and agreed to stick with the original. You can hear us rehearsing here: https://youtu.be/UqmNkRWF4_k

 

Carol P


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