2016-11-20 Notes from the Bench

“O Clap Your Hands” Ralph Vaughan Williams

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate



O clap your hands, all ye people;
shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
For the Lord most high is terrible.
He is a great King over all the earth.
God is gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God; sing praises.
Sing praises to our King; sing praises.
For God is the King of all the earth.
Sing ye praises with understanding.
God reigneth over the heathen. 
God sitteth upon the throne of His holiness.
Sing praises unto our King. Sing praises.

-Psalm 47



Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was one of the leading English composers during the early and mid-twentieth century. His works include orchestral works that include nine symphonies, chamber music, operas, ballets, and vocal music, secular and sacred. Vaughan Williams demonstrated musical talent at an early age and received piano lessons from his aunt and later studied violin, however he did not emerge as a composer until his late thirties. He studied music at the Royal College of Music in London under the tutelage of the leading English composers and teachers his day including Hubert Parry, Charles Wood, Alan Gray, Charles Villiers Stanford and became close friends with fellow student, Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams also attended Trinity College in Cambridge where he studied music and history and earned Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Arts degrees; he later passed the examination for the Doctor of Music degree at Cambridge, the title conferred on him in 1901. Vaughan Williams remained dissatisfied with his techniques as a composer and spent the winter of 1907-1908 in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel. Ravel helped Vaughan Williams develop a compositional style that parted with the nineteenth century Germanic style, characterized with its heaviness and thick counterpoint, which influenced English music at the turn of the century.

Vaughan Williams loved early English music from the Tudor and Stuart periods and later became interested in the English folk-song tradition, transcribing and collecting songs that were later published, preserving an oral traditional. These folk songs influenced his compositional style and many of these melodies were incorporated into his orchestral works.

Vaughan Williams was an agnostic, however he held with personal affection the Authorized Version of the Bible in English for the beauty of its language. Despite his personal views of religion, he composed a number of liturgical and sacred works that are frequently sung by church choirs today. From 1904-1906, Vaughan Williams worked as the music editor for The English Hymnal. Many of his hymn arrangements appear in our Hymnal 1982 including his beloved hymn tune, Sine nomine; “For all the saints.” For Vaughan Williams, accentuating the beauty of the text was of the highest importance. Vaughan Williams’s setting of Psalm 47, “O Clap Your Hands” was written in 1920.

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