Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical Songs Baritone – Thomas Allen

Anthony Giles

In early January 1997, I joined the sanctuary choir at First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kent, Washington.  This might seem like a strange choice for me to have made, given the differences between my world-view and that of the church.  I had been seduced, however, by the quality of the choral music at First EPC under choir director Anthony Giles.  Although I had never sung in a choir before, the more I listened to Anthony’s choir, the more I wanted to be a part of making music, not just listening to it.

It was a decision I have never regretted; in fact, I wish I had made it years earlier.  Under Anthony’s direction, I finally had the opportunity to make music, and lots of it.  I have sung many glorious anthems and some of the great works of choral literature, including Handel’s Messiah, Poulenc’s Gloria, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Magnificat, as well as the work featured on this video, Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Five Mystical Songs are all taken from the work of the English poet George Herbert (1593–1633).  Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), another Englishman, set four of Herbert’s poems to music in 1911, and our choir performed this work at a Good Friday service in 1998.  This video, recorded in 2004, features baritone Thomas Allen with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

Late last month, Anthony announced to the choir that he has accepted a teaching position at International School Bangkok.  He will be leaving in July, and expects to be in Thailand for two years.  Beyond that, it is impossible to know what the future holds.  Perhaps he will return to First EPC, and take up his baton again… but perhaps not.

In any case, Anthony, for all I have learned in the thirteen years I have been singing for you, and for all the joy that singing has brought me, thank you from my heart.

1. Easter
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him may'st rise;
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, Just. 

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day. 

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all music is but three parts vied,
And multiplied;
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

2. I Got Me Flowers
I got me flowers to strew thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought'st thy sweets along with thee. 

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, and the East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume. 

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.


3. Love bade me welcome
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd anything. 

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I? 

Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

4. The Call
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.

5. Antiphon
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.

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

The church with Psalms must shout.
No door can keep them out:
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

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

Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs (1948) Soprano – Renée Fleming

When I inaugurated this blog last August, it was with the hope that readers of these pages might come to share my enthusiasm for the music that I featured here, and the comments I have received since then have demonstrated that this hope was not in vain.  I didn’t realize, however, that this would become a two-way street, and that readers would introduce me to music they loved, which in turn might appear on these pages.

Richard Strauss

The most recent example of this occurred when I posted the video of Boris Feiner playing Debussy’s “Pour le Piano”.  Bryan Lowe of KING-FM in Seattle left a comment on that post which said in part that in his thirty years as Program Director, “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss was one of his favorite discoveries, and had changed his world.

I was struck by Bryan’s use of the phrase, “changed my world”.  I was not familiar with Strauss’ “Four Last Songs”, but on the strength of his recommendation, I looked it up on YouTube, and now, having listened to it many times, all I can say is, Bryan didn’t exaggerate.  If anything, he understated the emotional impact of these extraordinary songs.

“Four Last Songs” was written in 1948, and was Richard Strauss’ final completed work.  He died one year later at age 85.  To me, these four songs suggest someone near the end of his life who, upon reflection, is at peace both with the life he has lived and with the prospect of his death.

This performance was recorded in 2001 in London’s famed Royal Albert Hall, and features soprano Renée Fleming with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

1. Frühling  (Spring)

Text: Hermann Hesse

In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
Von deinem Duft und Vogelsang.

Nun liegst du erschlossen
In Gleiß und Zier
von Licht übergossen
wie ein Wunder vor mir.

Du kennst mich wieder,
du lockst mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart!

_________________________

In shadowy crypts
I dreamt long
of your trees and blue skies,
of your fragrance and birdsong.

Now you appear
in all your finery,
shining brilliantly
like a miracle before me.

You recognize me,
you entice me tenderly.
All my limbs tremble at
your blessed presence!

2. September

Text: Hermann Hesse

Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
In den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.
Langsam tut er
die müdgeword’nen Augen zu.

_________________________

The garden is in mourning.
Cool rain seeps into the flowers.
Summertime shudders,
quietly awaiting his end.

Golden leaf after leaf falls
from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
at his dying dream of a garden.

For just a while he tarries
beside the roses, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.

3. Beim Schlafengehen  (Going to Sleep)

(Text: Hermann Hesse)

Nun der Tag mich müd’ gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken.
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele, unbewacht,
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

_________________________

Now that I am wearied of the day,
I will let the friendly, starry night
greet all my ardent desires
like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night’s magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

4. Im Abendrot  (At Sunset)

(Text: Joseph von Eichendorff)

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

_________________________

We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.

Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

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