Let all the World in every Corner Sing       Ralph Vaughan Williams


Let all the world in every corner sing, My God and King.

The heavens are not too high, His praise may thither fly.

The earth is not too low, His praises there may grow.

The church with psalms must shout, No door can keep them out:

But above all the heart must bear the longest part.

George Herbert (1593-1633)

This piece, a veritable paean of praise, is the final movement of a longer piece called ‘Five Mystical Songs’, for chorus and solo baritone, written between 1906 and 1911. The work sets five poems of the Welsh-born seventeenth-century Anglican poet and priest, George Herbert, and was premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1911 with Vaughan Williams conducting. The music of this final movement is characterised by a very lively accompaniment, based on a series of different ostinato figures, and, for much of the time, a running quaver bass line. Much of the choral singing is highly declamatory and almost fanfare-like. For lines 2-4 of the text (as above), pairs of voices (soprano and tenor, then alto and bass) sing antiphonally before the texture builds again to a forceful four parts. The energy briefly subsides for the final two lines of text before the opening returns again with even more energy and momentum. A fiery organ coda concludes the piece.  

Some composers write masterpieces at the age of seventeen. Others, at the same age, write nothing. Both Mozart and Schubert crammed a lifetime’s worth of work into three short decades, whilst others grow to maturity much more slowly. Ralph Vaughan Williams was one such composer. Had he died at the same age as Schubert did, he would be unknown to us today as a composer. Born in 1872, in the vicarage of the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney, Vaughan Williams’ style was to develop steadily over the final five decades of the eight which made up his life. His first significant work, The Sea Symphony, was not written until 1903, by which time he was over thirty, and most of the works for which he is remembered today were written in his fifties and sixties. The first English composer of any note to write an opera since Purcell in the late seventeenth century, Vaughan Williams is perhaps the most quintessentially English of all twentieth-century English composers. Whilst we think of Elgar, a contemporary of Vaughan Williams, as a great English composer, his musical style was derived from a personal study of the great nineteenth-century German symphonists. For Vaughan Williams, school at Charterhouse was followed by a period of musical study at the RCM with Stanford and Parry and at Trinity College Cambridge with Charles Wood. He emerged from this in 1900 with a doctorate in music, an FRCO and various other qualifications, but still no compositions of any significance to his name. Resistant to the romantic musical style of his teachers and of Elgar, he found himself without a voice. At a chance meeting with an elderly retired shepherd at, of all places, a vicar’s tea party (his father was a country rector), Vaughan Williams was introduced to folksong. It was a meeting which was to change his life. During a ten year period from 1902, he travelled around the countryside and coastline of Great Britain, usually on foot, collecting folksongs from farmers, shepherds, gardeners, fishermen, stonemasons, grave diggers, dairymaids and the like in a notebook. By 1910 he had over 800 of them. He soaked himself in their melodic shapes, their often modal harmonic implications, and their quirky rhythms. In the bare bones of Vaughan Williams’ mature musical language therefore we see these features, which were undoubtedly derived and developed from this love of folk song. It was this which finally allowed him to find a voice and was to define the character of his music, allowing him to break free from the great German romantic tradition. After a further period of study, this time in Paris with Ravel, Vaughan Williams was ready to compose. A great nationalistic composer, Vaughan Williams revelled in the delights of both the English countryside and of London. One has only to look at the titles of some of his most enduring works (The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on Greensleeves, a Norfolk Rhapsody, In the Fen Country, The London Symphony, The Sea Symphony, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis) to understand that this was a different type of nationalism from that which we find in the Pomp and Circumstance marches of Elgar, and one much more akin to that of Frederick Delius. Surprisingly, given his parentage, his editorship of the English Hymnal (for which he wrote several very popular and enduring hymn tunes), his posts as church organist and his writing of sacred music, Vaughan Williams was a professed atheist.  During the First World War he served on the front line in Salonika and was made Director of Music for the British Army Expeditionary Force. He composed in virtually every genre – from film scores to opera, from solo song to huge-scale symphonic works, from chamber music to Shakespearean incidental music and organ music. A close friend of Gustav Holst, the two composers would regularly get together for what they called ‘field days’ – times when they would share their current and usually incomplete work with each another and subject each other to criticism and suggestion. Vaughan Williams died very suddenly in the early hours of August 26th 1958, having apparently been in excellent health. His ashes are interred in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey, adjacent to the burial plots of Purcell and Stanford.