This is one of a handful of motets by Vaughan Williams, all of which he scored for unaccompanied chorus, though in a couple -- Valiant for Truth and O Taste and See -- he allowed for optional organ or piano accompaniment. All his motets are short -- The Souls of the Righteous, for example, lasts about three minutes in performance. But Vaughan Williams distinguishes it from the others by providing solo parts for a treble (or soprano, which is the usual choice), tenor, and baritone. Its text is derived from Solomon 3:1-5.
The motet begins with the soprano soloist singing the words, "The Souls of the Righteous are in the hands of God." The lonely, somewhat melancholy nature of the work is immediately established with those words and maintains a cryptic atmosphere similar to that in so many of the composer's choral-based religious compositions. Its somber demeanor, however, is more related to its gossamer manner -- voices that seem to float amid gray mists -- than to an inherent dour character. Vaughan Williams' choral writing, as usual, is well-crafted, featuring unexpected shifts in harmonies and subtle, if sparing polyphonic activity. The composer was always at home in composing music on religious texts, finding a deeper and often moving manner of expression, despite his own agnosticism. In sum, this is a deftly wrought choral work whose somber nature may limit its appeal.