Being of very different moods these texts are apparently an haphazard grasp from the highlights of English Literature. This makes them of course not very suitable to combine in a cycle, and the composer avoids in a very peculiar way to do so: the mid-section is published by a different company than the cornerparts. This outer pair sharing their publisher must of course not implicate any relation whatsoever, hence these parts differ not only in textwriter, but in copyright as well.
Such a strange reversal of the usual habits from authors, who normally place their different titles at the same publisher, and have no reason at all to tamper with their copyrights, strongly denies what a common title should stand for: unity. But the particular one heading all title pages is merely invented for the very purpose of a combined release. So Vaughan Williams now contradicts himself, or formulated by the letter: ‘the smallprint underneath each song reveals an extremely difficult way of doing things, achieving nothing in the process but a contradiction of what is written in capitals above.’ And if these minor additions to the original words are telling such a funny story, what will a close examination of the poems themselves reveal?
The prelude is written by George Herbert (1593-1633), and this fact is a first hint that the dating of this song might be unreliable: there is little reason to regard ‘Elizabethan’ as a proper time-indication to a text whose author was still looking forward to his tenth birthday when the immortal queen died. Apart from this, there is nothing strange about its appearance in a cycle of songs, for Sweet Day says halfway down:
My music shows ye have your closes
Yet, this line raises questions: according to the context it is evidently about our limited days (George Herbert was a clergyman). But the choise of words suggests some deeper ground; as to be expected from good poetry. And whatever it is, what lies under the obvious interpretation as:
‘My song foretells your ends’
must be something important, because the line does everything to attract attention. And not for its grammar only; I was never able to sing this at rehearsals without wondering why on earth it speaks of ‘my music’. It seems so fitting to a partsong, but Herbert never was a songwriter; all his religious poetry was first published after his death, and was in consequence during his lifetime unknown to any composer. Therefore this line deals with music that does not exist at all (when it finally dawned on me that poetry equals ‘spoken music’, this literal interpretation had already proved its value). It had to wait centuries before RVW did something about it. And even then not in full extend, for the second quatrain of the poem, originally published as Virtue, is missing.
A brilliant move!
Reducing Virtue to a part song Vaughan Williams focuses his music on words that in their turn place (the word) music central. This is an extremely difficult way to contradict oneself, because the reversion only works when it is obvious that the music‘s sole task is to carry its words. Therefore it is no surprise to find in the partsongs a textexpression as precise as in the standard setting music of Bach. The most obvious example of this imitative style, is the music to die slowly away on ‘die’, but it is also applied on the more obscure details. And even on the totally invisible one: Virtue’s textreduction from 16 to 12 lines is reflected in the choise of measure. Choises actually: in the end Sweet Day is still telling a complete story, and so the 3/4 beat is in the two final bars replaced by a 4/4.
A few paragraphs ago a reversion contradicted the unity heading each song in capitals, and now a reversion contradicts the text-expression that is written in capitals in every detail of the music. It makes one wonder. Especially as the second song also deals with the theme of approaching death. Leaving only the last piece, a lightfooted love song, on itself. In short ; RVW does everything within his power to keep his songs apart. But because he applies contradicting in his methods, he can’t prevent the first two from flocking together :
The Willow Song
– – – – – – – – – –
O Mistress Mine