Vaughan Williams often tended to focus on the composition of works in a specific genre at certain periods in his career. In 1913, for example, he wrote incidental scores to no less than seven plays (five by Shakespeare), and in 1920 he wrote a spate of hymns, hymn arrangements, songs, and song arrangements (including one of Stephen Foster's Old Folks at Home!). This Benedicite initiated a series of works in the sacred and hymn genres, which included the Hundredth Psalm, Three Choral Hymns, and Songs of Praise for Boys and Girls. Among these compositions, the Benedicite is probably the most important and masterful effort. Scored for soprano, chorus, and orchestra, this quarter-hour work has largely been neglected over the years despite its high artistic quality.
For his texts Vaughan Williams used "The Song of the Three Holy Children" (from Apocrypha) and John Austin's "Hark, my soul, how everything." The first source accounts for over half the work's text, and begins with the words, "O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever." The opening, featuring a brief orchestral introduction followed by a spirited entrance by the chorus, is vigorous and colorful, sounding more regal and festive than glorious and religious. The middle section is subdued and reflective, and the latter part returns to the mood of the opening.
Not surprisingly, Vaughan Williams' writing for the soprano soloist is lovely, often haunting, while the choral and orchestral scoring are more vigorous and colorful. Overall, this work must be judged among the composer's finer choral compositions.