Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
I Vow to Thee, My Country – the complete sacred choral music
Joshua Ryan (organ), Richard Horne (tubular bells)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
rec. 2021, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD279 
The choral music of Gustav Holst remains too little known or appreciated; certainly, I would admit that I was insufficiently aware of this side of his output until the arrival of this new CD from William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, one example being Holst’s masterly Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, but I think it’s telling that, as Andrew Neill tells us in his excellent booklet essay, this disc is the first to include all of the composer’s sacred music.
Despite my overall lack of knowledge of Holst’s choral music, the programme is bookended by two pieces with which I am familiar. One is the Nunc Dimittis for a cappella double choir. I’ve heard this before on disc and on the radio, but I particularly associate it with Gloucester Cathedral. In recent years the piece has been sung to conclude the annual Candlemas procession service in the cathedral; indeed, I heard it sung – very well – at the 2023 service just a few weeks ago. This very fine composition is one of a number of works which British composers wrote for R R Terry and the choir of Westminster Cathedral. Holst’s music moves from a hushed start to an exultant, virtuosic ‘Glory be’. The autograph score was lost and thus it was that the piece lay unpublished until 1979 when it was reconstructed from a copy; thank goodness it’s now widely available.
At the end of the programme, we find Turn Back, O Man, one of the Four Festival Choruses. I sang this decades ago while I was still at school. At that stage of my life I’m sure that the only music by Holst that I’d heard was The Planets and, more specifically, ‘Mars’ and ‘Jupiter’. I haven’t heard this anthem for years but I’ve never forgotten it. The steady tread of its bass line was, I now realise, probably my first exposure to one of Holst’s processionals. The very fine performance by Vann and his choir brought back many memories. The music is heard in a new arrangement by Iain Farrington; I confess I’m not quite sure what is new about the arrangement but the music sounds splendid.
The other three Festival Choruses are very interesting and Iain Farrington is the arranger of two of them, the exception being All People that on Earth do Dwell. Clifford Bax, the brother of Arnold Bax, furnished the words for Turn Back, O Man; A Festival Chime is another setting of his words. The first line speaks of church bells and, taking his cue from that, Holst included a significant part for tubular bells in the piece; the bells add pleasingly to the texture. Holst used the Welsh hymn tune, St Denio which is most closely associated with the great hymn ‘Immortal, invisible’. It’s something of a shock to hear the tune sung in so sprightly a fashion as is here the case, but the words call for sprightly treatment, I think. There’s one snag with the piece, though; Bax’s text consists of no less than seven verses and in addition the first verse is repeated twice within the course of the poem. Despite the lively performance, I think this strophic setting slightly outstays its welcome. Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence sets famous lines from the Liturgy of St James to a traditional carol tune from Picardy. Beginning with solo verses, first for a soprano and then for a baritone, the piece grows in cumulative power, ending in a blaze of choral and organ sound. It’s a most impressive piece. I was particularly intrigued by All People that on Earth do Dwell. Holst uses the Old Hundredth tune, so familiar to us from the majestic setting by his great friend, Vaughan Williams. But what’s astonishing here is Holst’s Bachian interpolations. After verse two, he inserts, as the music to which he sets the words of verse three, nothing less than the music of the opening chorus from Bach’s cantata Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, BWV 130, complete with lengthy festive organ introduction. It’s a fascinating digression which gives the choir the opportunity for some superbly executed contrapuntal singing. Joshua Ryan plays the virtuoso organ part with great clarity and panache. Holst reverts to The Old Hundredth tune for verse four and then for verse five he uses the music from the closing chorus of the Bach cantata. I can only describe this as a hybrid piece. The concept is, on one level, a bit whacky and, on another level, a homage to the traditions of German hymnody and Bach; somehow, the hybrid conception works.
William Vann’s programme includes a number of hymn tunes. One such is Gird on thy sword. This, as we shall see in a moment, was extracted from a larger work for inclusion in the 1931 edition of the hymn book Songs of Praise. Andrew Neill rightly describes the tune as “stirring and striking”. Holst extracted both the words (by Robert Bridges) and the melody from a larger work, the anthem Man Born to Toil (1927). The full anthem is powerful and darkly dramatic at the start. The section that Holst extracted for the hymn occurs part way through (stanzas 3 & 4 of the poem). In Gird on thy sword (and in the relevant portion of Man Born to Toil) Holst’s treatment of the tune is more straightforward; it’s fascinating to hear his more extended and dramatic approach to the tune elsewhere in the anthem.
Other hymns include Our Blest Redeemer. This is quite subdued as hymns go; here, it’s sung unaccompanied (as Holst intended?) which suits the melody very well. I’m not entirely sure if In this World, the Isle of Dreams is classed as a hymn or a choral song. Holst gave the tune a name (‘Brookend’), which might suggest hymnody. The piece is a strophic setting of a six-verse poem by Robert Herrick. The verses are short and Holst set them to a most attractive tune. The present performance is fresh-sounding and appealing. For the hymn From Glory to Glory Advancing Holst turned again to the Liturgy of St James. Holst gave the name ‘Sheen’ to the tune. The melody is a very fine one. However, each line of the poem is quite lengthy and I wonder if that might inhibit congregations from embracing the hymn.
Earlier, I referenced an occasion when Holst extracted words and music from a longer work into a shorter standalone composition. There’s another example in this programme in the shape of By Weary Stages the Old World Ages. This was extracted by Holst from his 1927 work, The Coming of Christ. That score, which plays for some 37 minutes, is scored for speaker, chorus and orchestra. It was commissioned for Canterbury Cathedral by Dr George Bell (1883-1958); Bell was Dean of Canterbury at the time (1925-29), after which he served as Bishop of Chichester for nearly thirty years until his death. The intention behind The Coming of Christ was to revive the old tradition of staging medieval mystery plays in the cathedral. I learned from the booklet which accompanied a recording of the full work that the project was controversial in some quarters but, nonetheless, several thousand people attended the performances. By Weary Stages the Old World Ages is the concluding section of The Coming of Christ. The words are by John Masefield, who wrote the libretto for the whole work. When I reviewed the premiere recording of The Coming of Christ in 2011, I commented ‘This final piece is a strophic hymn of praise. The melody is a solid tune, very English in character and very reassuring. With the [tubular] bells adorning the texture it makes a joyful ending and one suspects that an audience or congregation could easily pick up the tune and join in.’ This new performance is, I believe, better than what we hear in the estimable account of the full work and the SOMM recording is certainly better; it’s far clearer and cleaner.
The Coming of Christ was completely neglected for decades until it was revived at the 2010 English Music Festival (and subsequently recorded). Even more neglected was Not Unto Us, O Lord. Andrew Neill tells us that there is no record that this was ever performed in Holst’s lifetime and the manuscript was only uncovered in the British Library in 2019 by Chris Cope, Chairman of the Holst Society. The score was then transcribed by Alex Davan Wetton and William Vann and Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea gave what is believed to be the first performance of the piece as recently as February 2020. Andrew Neill draws a comparison with the verse anthems of S S Wesley and I think that judgement is spot on. I have to say I found it a bit episodic but it is very good that the piece has been found and brought to public attention. This premiere recording is spirited.
The Short Festival Te Deum was composed for choir and orchestra. Indeed, the score actually includes a note by Holst that ‘…it was not intended for performance with organ’. Well, notwithstanding that stern injunction, Iain Farrington has produced, at the behest of the Holst Society, an organ version. I think it’s a jolly good thing that he did so because this must increase the opportunities for performance. It’s a remarkably succinct setting – it plays for just 4:37 in this performance – and the predominant tone is extrovert, though there are some more thoughtful passages too. In complete contrast to the outgoing nature of that Te Deum stands the setting of Ave Maria for unaccompanied eight-part female choir. This is nothing less than a gem; the music is exquisitely beautiful. I’ve heard it before but I can’t recall a more tender and poised account of it than this present one.
I began this review by suggesting that much of Holst’s choral music is too little known. Happily, that’s not the case with his Two Psalms. The setting of Psalm 86 is marvellous. Holst distils an atmosphere of supplication – the opening suggests to me penitents on their knees at some distance from the altar. The penitents find voice through a beseeching tenor solo – here excellently delivered – and later on a crystal-clear soprano soloist adds her voice to the plea for mercy. This extraordinary setting really conveys a feeling of music from antiquity and the marvellous performance by Vann and his singers reinforces that. In some ways Psalm 148 is more straightforward. Holst uses a well-known tune (it’s commonly associated with the hymns ‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones’ and ‘All Creatures of our God and King’) but it’s what he does with the tune that is remarkable. He treats the melody in varying ways – while staying very close to the tune – all the while building the intensity. It’s almost a fantasy on the tune. At the end of this performance there’s a palpable sense of ecstasy.
I’ve previously heard and admired several discs by William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea; this is as fine as any I’ve heard. The choir comprises elite professional singers, so the standard is very high indeed. They respond to William Vann’s expert direction with discipline and evident commitment. Organist Joshua Ryan offers exemplary playing.
SOMM is a label that prides itself on its production values and this disc is an excellent example. Producer Siva Oke and engineer Adaq Khan have recorded the performers expertly. The sound is atmospheric yet clear, and the balance between choir and organ has been very well judged. The layout of the booklet, designed by Andrew Giles, is exemplary: all the texts are laid out with a clarity that I wish some other labels (no names!) would copy; the font makes it very easy for even my tired old eyes to read. That makes it a pleasure to read Andrew Neill’s expert notes.
Next year we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Holst. I hope that a way may be found for William Vann and his fine choir to mark that by issuing a recording of more of the composer’s music. In the meantime, though, this excellent and very welcome disc will do very nicely indeed.
Previous review: Nick Barnard (November 2022)
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Nunc Dimittis (1915)
Gird on thy sword (1931)
Two Psalms (1912): Psalm 86, Psalm 148
In this World, the Isle of Dreams (c. 1925)
Not Unto Us, O Lord (c. 1893-96)
Our Blest Redeemer (1919)
Short Festival Te Deum (1919)
From Glory to Glory Advancing (c. 1905)
Man Born to Toil (1927)
Eternal Father (1927)
By Weary Stages the Old World Ages (1927)
Christ hath a Garden (1928)
Ave Maria (1894)
I Vow to Thee, My Country (c.1918)
Four Festival Choruses:
A Festival Chime (1916)
All People that on Earth do Dwell (c. 1916-19)
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (1916)
Turn Back, O Man (1916)