The musical life of Britain would be different in many ways if it were not for the British choral tradition: it is nourished as much by the music of renaissance Italy, baroque Germany, Enlightenment Austria or Romantic Russia as British music.

There’s something so special about the sound of singing voices, whether big or small in number and whether with accompaniment or a cappella. It’s a practice that has its origins in medieval monastic foundations, in which boys and lay singers joined the regular monks as they observed their religious duties.

Today’s instalment of Once or Twice a Fortnight on OperaLively showcases three Twentieth Century choral works by British composers.

The two first works works are also contemporaneous to each other, spanning the years between 1906 and 1911.

Ralph Vaughan WilliamsFive Mystical Songs, written between 1906 and 1911 sets four poems ("Easter" divided into two parts) by seventeenth-century Welsh-born English poet and Anglican priest George Herbert (1593–1633), from his 1633 collection The Temple: Sacred Poems.
Like Herbert's simple verse, the songs are fairly direct, but have the same intrinsic spirituality as the original text. They were supposed to be performed together, as a single work, but the styles of each vary quite significantly. The final "Antiphon" is probably the most different of all: a triumphant hymn of praise is also sometimes performed on its own, as a church anthem for choir and organ: "Let all the world in every corner sing".

Vaughan Williams considered himself an atheist at the time (he later settled into a "cheerful agnosticism"), though this did not prevent his setting of verse of an overtly religious inspiration.

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Songs of Sunset, written in 1906-07, is a work by Frederick Delius after eight poems by Ernest Dowson (1867 –1900). The work was first performed on 16 June 1911 at an all-Delius concert in the presence of the composer, conducted by his great champion Thomas Beecham – Beecham is also leading the forces on today’s featured performance.

In marked contrast to the religious works which were the staple of choral festivals at the time, Songs of Sunset still bears the seeds of controversy. After conducting a performance by its dedicatees, the Elberfeld Choral Society, Delius' German champion, Hans Haym, wrote that "this is not a work for a wide public, but rather for a smallish band of musical isolates who are born decadents and life's melancholics."

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The final work today was composed about a quarter of a century later than the first pair.Belshazzar's feast (based on chapter 5 in the Book of Daniel) tells how Belshazzar holds a great feast and drinks from the vessels that had been looted in the destruction of the First Temple. A hand appears and writes on the wall. The terrified Belshazzar calls for his wise men, but they are unable to read the writing. The queen advises him to send for Daniel, renowned for his wisdom. Daniel reminds Belshazzar that his father Nebuchadnezzar, when he became arrogant, was thrown down until he learned that God has sovereignty over the kingdom of men. Belshazzar had likewise blasphemed God, and so God sent this hand. Daniel then reads the message and interprets it: God has numbered Belshazzar's days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to the Medes and the Persians.

This story is the basis for the cantata of the same name by William Walton. It was first performed at the Leeds Festival on 8 October 1931, and the work has remained one of Walton's most celebrated compositions. Osbert Sitwell selected the text from the Bible, primarily the Book of Daniel, and Psalm 137.

At first the work seemed avant-garde because of its extrovert writing and musical complexity; it is however always firmly tonal although it is scored without a key signature and with many accidentals. The addition of the brass bands was suggested by the festival director, Thomas Beecham; the bands were on hand anyway for a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem, and Beecham said to the young Walton: "As you'll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?". However, it was an immediate success, despite its severe challenges to the chorus.

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This final performance comes from my Vinyl collection, and features the Halle orchestra and chorus.

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
5 Mystical Songs (1911)
Stephen Roberts, Baritone
Northern Sinfonia Chorus
(Chorus Master: Alan Fearon)
Northern Sinfonia
Richard Hickox, conducting

Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Songs of Sunset, RTii/5
John Cameron, Baritone
Maureen Forrester, Contralto
Beecham Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Thomas Beecham, conducting

William WALTON (1902-1983)
Belshazzar’s Feast, C23
Michael Rippon, Baritone
Hallé Choir
(Chorus Master: – Ronald Frost)
Hallé Orchestra
James Loughran, conducting

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