Everyone loves Christmas — even agnostics. The English tolerance for, if not cultivation of, eccentricity easily embraced Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), the agnostic composer of some of this century’s most beautiful religious music, including Hodie Christus Natus Est, finally available here in time for Christmas on a special EMI import CD (CDC 54128).
This is a cause for celebration since no other recording has been available for some time, and no other twentieth-century cantata offers a comparable musical tapestry of the Christmas narrative so full of rapture, jubilation, mystery, merriment, and gravity over its nearly hour-long length. The tremendous vigor of this work belies the eighty to eighty-two years of age at which Vaughan Williams wrote it and confirms that he maintained his unusual relationship with Christianity to the very end.
According to his wife, Ursula, at some point in his life, Vaughan Williams “drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.” As a young man in his thirties, Vaughan Williams edited the English Hymnal. In 1912, he produced the lovely Fantasia on Christmas Carols (also included on this CD). Remaining cheerfully agnostic, he went on to write the beautiful Mass in G, the Dona Nobis Pacem, the Magnificat, Five Mystical Songs, and other gems. These works show Vaughan Williams at his best because they draw on his roots in English hymnody and folk song. Whatever reservations I have about Vaughan Williams as a symphonist evaporate in this kind of music. Hodie demonstrates Vaughan William’s broad expressive range from touching childlike simplicity to raucous pagan splendor. The gentle narrative is interspersed with hushed magical moments and huge choral and orchestral outbursts that weightily convey that this Child’s birth is truly earth-shaking.
Hodie opens with amazing robustness. There is almost a pagan swagger to the music for chorus and orchestra that reminds one of the world into which Christ was born and that the announcement of his birth is being made to that world. After the thunderous proclamation from the
“Vespers for Christmas Day” that “This day Christ is born,” the first of the Gospel narratives from Matthew and Luke begin with a boys’ chorus and organ. Their sweet simplicity is followed by an evocation of eerie mystery in the orchestra that accompanies the baritone’s rendition of Joseph’s dream, in which Joseph is told to accept the virgin with child. In that dream, the chorus exults at the prophecy of “Emmanuel” with the same kind of wild joy as at the opening.
From this point on, Vaughan Williams alternates the Gospel narrative with an eclectic selection of poems. The mezzo-soprano sings an exquisitely serene setting from Milton’s “Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” The boys’ chorus takes us through Luke from the decree of Caesar Augustus to the manger. The women’s chorus reflects ever so quietly and tenderly upon this event in Miles Coverdale’s poem, which also implores of the Child, “Kyrie eleison.” Back to Luke, the music for the angel’s announcement to the shepherds calls first upon the dream music of Joseph and then breaks out into general jubilation at the Gloria. Yet it is jubilation that is grounded in the gravity of the event. It is charged with a profound joy that begins with a kind of giddiness: can it be true that what was hoped for in the darkness has come to light? The answer is overwhelming — Emmanuel!
The cantata continues in this fashion, including a poem from Thomas Hardy (another agnostic) and several from the composer’s wife, Ursula, that seem to indicate that she, unlike her husband, was a cheerful believer. Her delightful poem on “The March of the Three Kings” inspires Vaughan Williams to conjure exotic oriental locales with the kind of barbaric swagger with which he began. At first, the only misstep seems to be the placement and setting of the beginning of the Gospel of St. John.
Vaughan Williams uses this as the beginning of the epilogue, which then continues with more of Milton’s “Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Yet this, too, works. Set to music that combines the opening motif with Joseph’s haunting dream theme, St. John’s text compactly recalls all that has transpired. Perhaps Vaughan Williams puts the beginning at the end because the End really is the Beginning.
Richard Hickox pulls out all the stops in his performance with the Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Because of my acquaintance with the premiere recording on EMI with Sir David Wilcocks (not currently available), who takes an overall gentler approach, it took several hearings to be won over by Hickox’s vigor. But his recording is dramatically persuasive, and it powerfully conveys the extraordinary richness of this masterpiece. The choral singing is splendid. Tenor soloist Robert Tear and baritone Stephen Roberts are especially good, and the orchestra moves easily from gossamer strings for gentler touches to glorious blasts of brass in the metaphysical moments. The one thing that the earlier performance has clearly to its advantage is the voice of Janet Baker, to whom the somewhat wobbly mezzo- soprano, Elizabeth Gale, on the newer recording does not favorably compare.
Add to the merits of Hodie the wonderful bonus of the touching Fantasia on Christmas Carols, wisely placed on band one before the more substantial work, and you will have a Merry Christmas with this cheerful agnostic.