Thursday, December 1, 2011

“From Kingdoms of Wisdom Secret and Far” -- Poetry in RVW's Hodie

Yesterday I mentioned how much I love the poetry that Ralph Vaughan Williams chose for his Christmas cantata, Hodie. In addition to setting words from the Christian Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Catholic liturgy, Vaughan Williams set poems by John Milton, Thomas Hardy, George Herbert, W. Ballet, William Drummond, Miles Coverdale (his paraphrase of verses by Martin Luther), and his wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams.

As beautiful as the poetry is on its own, when it is illuminated and elevated by Vaughan Williams’ powerful score, it is utterly ravishing. My two favorite movements – the March of the Three Kings and the Epilogue – combine amazing words with compelling music, making them simply irresistible.

Here are the words to the famous March of the Three Kings, which was written by Ursula Vaughan Williams especially for the fourteenth movement of this cantata.


The March of the Three Kings
Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007)

From kingdoms of wisdom secret and far
come Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar;
they ride through time, they ride through night
led by the star’s foretelling light.

Crowning the skies
the star of morning, star of dayspring calls,
lighting the stable and the broken walls
where the prince lies.

Gold from the veins of earth he brings,
red gold to crown the King of Kings.
Power and glory here behold
shut in a talisman of gold.

Frankincense from those dark hands
was gathered in eastern, sunrise lands,
incense to burn both night and day
to bear the prayers a priest will say.

Myrrh is a bitter gift for the dead.
Birth but begins the path you tread;
your way is short, your days foretold
by myrrh, and frankincense and gold.

Return to kingdoms secret and far,
Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar,
ride through the desert, retrace the night
leaving the star’s imperial light.

Crowning the skies
the star of morning, star of dayspring, calls:
clear on the hilltop its sharp radiance falls
lighting the stable and the broken walls
where the prince lies.


It’s interesting that the final stanza mirrors the first stanza, yet contains that extra line (the third). My speculation is that RVW asked UVW for the extra line so that he could craft a suitably expansive ending for this movement, which encompasses so many ideas central to the Christian story. And his setting of the final stanza is indeed marvelous, with the soloists’ voices arching high over the choir’s unison declamations.

The entire movement is truly compelling, with the swaying steps of the camels so perfectly depicted, the exotic “Eastern” colors in the melodies and the orchestration, and the inexorable, magnificent crescendo as the Magi near Bethlehem and the full glory of the Star bursts over the horizon.

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