These four hymns divulge not only Vaughan Williams' love for the genre of religious hymns, but his propensity for unusual scoring in the accompaniment of his vocal works. While piano and orchestra have been the general choice of other composers for accompaniment in their songs, Vaughan Williams often strayed from the norm, using solo oboe for the Ten Blake Songs (1957), and solo violin for the Two English Folksongs (1935), to name just two examples.
The first of the four hymns is entitled "Lord! Come Away," its text coming from Bishop Jeremy Taylor (1613 - 1667). Marked Maestoso, the hymn is a passionate outpouring in which the music might just as well be suited for a love song. Yet, it also has an ecstatic, radiant quality that gives it a bona fide spiritual sense as well. The opening words, "Lord! Come Away/Why dost thou stay?" come across as a passionate plea, sung to a soaring, rapturous melody. The accompaniment, mostly consisting of sustained chords from the string orchestra and viola, conveys a sense of both serenity and ecstasy.
The second hymn, "Who Is This Fair One?" on texts by Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748), is marked Andante moderato. It begins mysteriously, the viola playing in its lower ranges, the tenor singing a dark, somewhat ghostly theme. Again, the music could well serve a setting of secular text, although a religious spirit is present, too: one can even hear this hymn as a precursor to the gloomy ecstasies of Messiaen. The harmonies certainly augur those of Shostakovich, from around the mid-twentieth century. This is at once a profound and prescient composition.
"Come Love, Come Lord Follows," with texts by Richard Crashaw (?1612 - 1649) and marked Lento, features a long, lovely introduction by the viola, accompanied by the string orchestra. The music has a haunting quality throughout, but may have a bit less depth than its siblings. At about three-and-a-half minutes, this is the shortest hymn in the set.
The last work here is "Evening Hymn," on texts translated from Greek by Robert Bridges (1844 - 1930). Marked Andante con moto, it begins with a brief introduction by the viola and string orchestra, wherein the serene and lovely theme is presented. The vocal line is beautiful: richly post-Romantic, it is soothing and celestial, recalling the mood of the third movement and the finale's close from the composer's Symphony No. 5 (1938 - 1943). The four hymns together last about 16 or 17 minutes in performance.