Vaughan Williams began writing these songs when he was 82 and completed them four years later, in 1958, the year of his death. The gestation was long in coming because he worked on numerous other compositions during the period, including Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9, and Ten Blake Songs. Moreover, he struggled to assemble them into an organic whole: he originally intended the four songs to be parts of two different song cycles, but, in the end, settled for them to be grouped in one collection under the prophetic title, Four Last Songs -- prophetic because this was his last completed effort. He would start The First Nowell but never finish it.
The four songs are entitled "Procris," marked Andante sostenuto, "Tired" (Andante sostenuto), "Hand, eyes and heart" (Andante tranquillo), and "Menelaus" (Andante moderato). Their texts come from the talented pen of Vaughan Williams' second wife, Ursula, a highly respected British poet, who wrote them especially for these songs. "Procris" (1958) has a desolate atmosphere, Vaughan Williams' music effectively matching the text about Ovid's character in Greek mythology, Procris, who was accidentally killed by her husband, Cephalus. The piano accompaniment is barren and bleak, often consisting only of single notes, and the vocal line is eerie in its dark sadness. In the end this song comes across as a profound and unsettling meditation on tragedy and death.
"Tired" (1956) is hardly brighter in mood, not least because the text again deals with death. Here the poet mourns the passing of a loved one, while Vaughan Williams provides music of gentle consolation and sadness. Again the piano accompaniment is light in texture, but heavy in a sense of loneliness and melancholy. "Hands, eyes and heart" (1956) follows, its words an expression of love by the poet, a statement by Ursula of her love for the aged composer. At slightly over a minute, this is the shortest song in the set, but is at once the sweetest, both in its somewhat sentimental text (the poet aiding her failing lover) and in its lovely music. This is also the brightest and most lyrical song of the four, landing squarely in the post-Romantic style the composer was so well known for.
"Menelaus" (1954) is also a lyrical song, though its expressive manner is more related to the composer's exotic side, having strains of Flos Campi (1925) and the Symphony No. 8 (1953 - 1955; rev. 1956). This is the longest of the four songs in the set, lasting about four minutes. Its text tells of another Greek mythological character, Menelaus, king of Sparta, who appears in the Iliad and Odyssey. The music here has a larger expressive range than that of its siblings, moving from the ethereal to the hopeful and onto the epic, but without ever sounding joyous or even encouraging. In the end, this set of songs must be ranked among the composer's most important vocal efforts.