The Song of the Tree of Life – Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Is it only me that has a favourite compendium of sacred anthems? It’s “the blue and yellow one”, also known as “Anthems for Choirs 2: Twenty-four Anthems for Sopranos and Altos (unison and 2-part)”, edited by Philip Ledger and published by OUP. Unusually for such a compendium, I have sung well over half of the 24 anthems, and many of my favourites are in the selection. Nestled near the back, between “O Salutaris” (a favourite, written about in this magazine on a previous occasion) and “Litany to the Holy Spirit” (written about in this magazine last summer) is Vaughan Williams’ utterly beautiful “The Song of the Tree of Life”. Like so many gorgeous tunes in this book, they have remained unsung at St Margaret’s since 2014. I was reminded of it earlier this year, during a Zoom bible study meeting.

We had been learning about the timeline of both testaments of the bible, starting with Genesis, through Exodus, Numbers, the Prophets, Kings and Judges and on into the Gospels, letters, and finally to the book of Revelation. I had been looking forward to the session on Revelation, hoping for the mysteries to be revealed. What was said made a bit of sense, but I was stopped short by the quote “In the midst of that fair city flows the river of water of life, clear as crystal. Who so will, let him take of the water of life freely and never thirst”. As happens so often, I heard the words not as speech but as song. I knew the music, I knew where to find it, and I knew it had to be sung again.

The singers’ melody has a few tricky corners, but is achievable – even the split into two-part harmony near the end. The piano accompaniment however is quite a different matter. Fortunately we are blessed with a highly skilled pianist in Tom who was willing to put in hours of personal practice time perfecting the endless quaver arpeggio runs. Our singing group has also put the effort in with personal practice, group rehearsals, and each recording individual videos to be complied into a Virtual Choir video – hopefully in time for the Easter Day celebrations. Why Easter Day? Because of the text, which is taken from Revelation 22:

Unto them that overcometh shall be given of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

On either side of the river groweth the tree of life, the leaves of the tree are for thy healing.

In the midst of that fair city flows the river of water of life clear as crystal. Whoso will, let them take of the water of life freely. Whoso drinketh of this water shall never thirst.

Take thou the leaves of the tree of life. So shalt thou enter in through the gates of the city.

Maggie’s Music Makers’ recording will not be ready in time for this edition of the magazine, so instead I’ll leave you with a version from St Bart’s Church choir, singing in York Minster:

EDIT: here is Maggie’s version –

Carol P

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