As many know, Vaughan Williams was a master of the medium of church music, especially as it related to the Anglican Church. His editing (with the Rev. Percy Dearmer) of the English Hymnal (1904 - 1906) has been widely praised over the years, some musicologists believing his efforts were among his greatest and most influential contributions, not just to church music, but to music in general. Vaughan Williams wrote many significant compositions in the sacred genre, including the Mass in G minor, the Te Deum in G, the Festival Te Deum, and this generally neglected set of Choral Hymns from the year 1929.
Using texts by Miles Coverdale (1488 - 1569), Bishop of Exeter and a key figure in the Reformation, Vaughan Williams fashioned this masterful short work (about 12 or 13 minutes in duration), for baritone (or tenor), chorus, and orchestra. There are optional parts for organ and piano in the score. Coverdale drew on the words of Martin Luther for the second and third items here, "Christmas Hymn" and "Whitsunday Hymn." The three works in the set are usually performed together; they possess a cohesion, if not a symphonic oneness.
The first section, "Easter Hymn," begins with the orchestra rising from its lower registers determinedly and anxiously, with the chorus then entering to shower the sonic landscape with brilliant cries of "Alleluia." The music, in the key of D major, is vigorous and uplifting throughout its three-minute duration here, and while this is the shortest of the three hymns, it is in many ways the most dramatic. "Christmas Hymn" (F major) follows, the longest item in the set, having both a lively and tranquil manner, as its Allegretto tranquillo marking suggests. Like the Easter music it begins mysteriously, with the chorus repeating "Kyrie eleison" (Lord, have mercy) in the lower registers, then rising, but now in an ethereal, gentle manner. The longest of the three hymns, this is in many ways the most subtle and profound.
The last hymn, "Whitsunday Hymn" (in C major, marked Andantino), begins with the baritone (or tenor) soloist singing, "Come Holy Spirit, most blessed dove," with the chorus answering, "Alleluia." Here, the music does not rise from the depths -- as in the earlier hymns -- but swells from quietude to produce a lovely, beautiful close to this great work. To many, it will be puzzling that a composer who moved from atheism in his early years to agnosticism for the latter half of his career, could produce such a seemingly committed and definitely beautiful religious work.