Saturday, April 7, 2007

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Easter contribution

For decades, Easter for me has been associated with one particularly majestic tune by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Of course, I’m talking about Salve Festa Dies. Or as (every Holy Week) my wife asks about our plans for Easter services: “Will they be playing ‘Hail thee, festival day’?”

The title of the Vaughan Williams tune comes from the first phrase of the Latin poem by Saint Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (ca. 530-600). Four centuries later, part of the poem had been adapted as a liturgical hymn with a refrain and 13 verses that begin:
R. Salve, festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo,
Qua Deus infernum vicit et astra tenet.
1. Ecce, renascentis testatur gratia mundi
Omnia cum Domino dona redisse suo.
2. Namque triumphanti post tristia tartara Christo
Undique fronde nemus, gramina flore favent.
3. Legibus inferni oppressis super astra meantem
Laudant rite Deum lux, polus, arva, fretum.
4. Qui crucifixus erat, Deus, ecce, per omnia regnat,
Dantque creatori cuncta creata precem.
5. Nobilitatis anni, mensum decus, arma dierum,
Horarum splendor, scripula puncta fovent.
6. Christe, salus rerum, bone conditor atque redemptor,
Unica progenies ex deitate patris, …
When I was a choirboy, I didn’t know who Vaughan Williams was, other than I saw his name as the composer of various hymns in my hymnal. A quick survey of the 1940 Hymnal shows his name listed next to 16 hymns — nine as the arranger or harmonizer, and seven as the composer. Three of those seven are Salve Festa Dies, one each for Easter, Ascension and Whitsunday. These three survive into the 1982 Hymnal (although Whitsunday is now “Pentecost”), as do 3/4 of the other RVW hymns.

I also didn’t know that RVW spent two years of his life, 1904-1906, editing the most durable and influential English-language hymnal of the 20th century. The English Hymnal of 1906 remained the Church of England hymnal for 80 years, until it was replaced by The New English Hymnal. In his preface, Vaughan Williams emphasized the diversity of musical sources for The English Hymnal, including “Tunes by 19th and 20th century composers.” Among the latter category were his own compositions, including Salve Festa Dies, composed in 1906. Interestingly, the 1906 hymnal lists 11 verses, versus nine in the 1940 (US) Hymnal, and six in the 1986 NEH. Some claim it is hard to sing due to the translation of the Latin couplets or perhaps the three different meter and melodies; whatever the reason, it seems that much more satisfying to sing once mastered.

Salve Festa Dies didn’t make it into the American New Hymnal of 1916, but instead makes its first appearance on this side of the pond in the 1940 Hymnal. The latter also includes six traditional English melodies arranged by RVW for the EH from the hundreds he compiled during the period 1903-1915.

Father Kelley of St. Mary of the Angels points out there is a significant error in the 1940 Hymnal. The phrase “Qui crucifixus erat, Deus, ecce, per omnia regnat” is rendered in the 1940 (and 1982) Hymnal as “He who was nailed to the cross is Lord and the ruler of all men.” I don’t have the 1906 EH (or 1931 Songs of Praise) at hand, but even I know that “Deus” is translated ”God” and not “Lord.”

[CD cover]When a few years ago I considered starting a (Anglican) sacred music Internet radio station, I accumulated a Godly collection of choral CDs, including two of Vaughan Williams music. My clear favorite was “A Vaughan Williams Hymnal,” where the Trinity College choir sings all the stirring hymns, including Salve Festa Dies. However, I only recognized two hymns from the Winchester Cathedral CD, “Vaughan Williams: Hymns and Choral Music,” which (without checking the actual composition dates) sounds like it’s mostly his mid-20th century music.

Both CD compilations know a hit when they hear one: both have the most famous (and I daresay most popular) Vaughan Williams hymn, Sine Nomine, also introduced with the 1906 hymnal.