Vaughan Williams's Cambridge Mass
The Wife and I, along with an Indian graduate student friend at her first classical concert, attended yesterday's U. S. premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Cambridge Mass in Northampton, Mass. Excellently performed by the Hampshire Choral Society, soloists and orchestra, prepared by HCS director Allan Taylor, and led by English conductor Alan Tongue, the premiere was a triumph for all concerned, including the large audience that capped the work with a rousing ovation. A great event? Yes. The unveiling of an overlooked masterwork, one destined to take a significant place in the choral repertoire? Alas no, in part for reasons that stem from the circumstances of the Mass's composition.
Neither lost nor unknown, the Cambridge Mass was never performed during its composer's lifetime; indeed, its first performance took place in the London suburb of Croydon in 2011, also conducted by Tongue, who uncovered and edited the work. Composed mostly in 1898, the Mass was submitted by Vaughan Williams in January, 1899, as a requirement of his doctoral degree at Cambridge University, which was granted in 1901. As you can see on Tongue's informative website about the Mass, Vaughan Williams had a list of requirements to follow in the piece, including length, the presence of soloists, the number of choral parts, the demonstration of certain compositional techniques (canon and fugue), and the inclusion of a symphonic movement.
While listening to the work's three movements -- Credo, Offertorium (the symphonic movement) and Sanctus & Benedictus -- one becomes aware that it was composed for academic rather than artistic criteria. In certain sections, such as the protracted concluding "Amen" of the Credo, it sounds as if Vaughan Williams was making absolutely sure he didn't leave anything out, no matter what it took. The Wife, who knows whereof she speaks, sensed here the presence of the members of Vaughan Williams's doctoral committee, each of whom demanded yet one more demonstration of the composer's prowess. So, in went section after section after fuguing section. Well, this may have satisfied the committee's needs, but for us in the audience, it made for a rather long slog.
What Vaughan Williams did not include in the Cambridge Mass was much of himself. There was plenty of Mendelssohn, a good deal of Brahms (the Offertorium contained passages lifted almost note-for-note from the Brahms 2nd Symphony), a dash of Handelian pomp, and a few theatrical strokes reminiscent of the Verdi Requiem, which Vaughan Williams had recently discovered. A few passages, such as the a cappella (unaccompanied) stretches of the Sanctus stood out for their sensitivity. And once in a while, a harmonic shift stood out as maybe, just maybe, a pre-echo of the RVW to come -- but then it was gone, and we were back in familar Victorian oratorio territory. Was this lack of individuality intentional, or had Vaughan Williams, at age 26, not yet discovered his voice? That's difficult to know, since very little of his music from this time or earlier has been published or performed. What we can hear, however, are works from the following decade, such as In the Fen Country, Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, Toward the Unknown Region, A Sea Symphony and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, each a step forward in the great composer's self-discovery. By giving us a starting point for our assessment of Vaughan Williams's development, the Cambridge Mass serves a valuable purpose. And with their scrupulously prepared, excitingly performed premiere yesterday, the Hampshire Choral Society did the composer justice, and gave themselves and the community something to crow about. With eight-part chorus. Well done!