The five Mystical Songs are among the more successful vocal efforts from Vaughan Williams' pre-World War I years. The composer used texts from one of his favorite poets, George Herbert (1593 - 1633). Herbert was also a musician, and the composer admired him not only for his multiple talents, but because of his understanding of the nature of music. Vaughan Williams collected four poems (splitting the first one, "Easter," to serve as text for both Nos. 1 and 2), set them to music and applied the name "Mystical" to the assemblage, simply because he found Herbert's poetry to be rife with that quality. The songs are generally better served when the optional chorus and orchestra are used, though in No. 2, a more intimate atmosphere may be preferable.
The first song, "Easter," divulges its author's musical proclivities. Beginning with the second verse, Herbert uses a number of musical metaphors in his poetry concerning the passion and death of Christ. For example, he writes, "His (Jesus') stretched sinews taught all strings, what key/Is best to celebrate this most high day." Whatever mystical qualities Vaughan Williams saw here, he did not play up in his music, for his style in this song is closer to that of his lushly-scored, extroverted Sea Symphony (1903 - 1909; rev. 1923). And while there is a certain religious atmosphere, the overall style comes across as post-Romantic, intimately so in the middle section. The second song, "I got me flowers," as mentioned above, uses text from the second half of Herbert's "Easter." Here again, Vaughan Williams clings to a Romantic approach, though the music is subdued in comparison with the more grandiose "Easter." The sparse scoring in the orchestral version is largely limited to winds and harp. The one outburst comes at the end when the chorus (or soloist) proclaims "There is but one, and that one ever."
No. 3, "Love bade me welcome," at about six minutes, is the longest of the five songs. The text relates a conversation between the poet and Love. The style again recalls that of the Sea Symphony. The ending is especially beautiful, the chorus (a very necessary option here), singing wordlessly the theme from the chant O sacrum convivium, while the soloist sings the lovely (textual) close. The next item in the collection, "The Call," is the shortest. It divulges of mixture of stylistic elements, from the folkish character of the melody to the Romantic style of the writing to the religious sense of its serenity. The last song, "Antiphon," is perhaps the one in the set that most needs the larger scoring alternatives. Its exuberant manner, its ecstatic energy, and praiseworthy text ("Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing/My God and King"), provide a grand close to the set, but defy any suggestion of having a "mystical" manner.