Watchful's Song (Nocturne), by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

What a happy circumstance this exquisite piece escapes categorization--at least technically--as an operatic aria, lest I should not be able to include it in this series on song. True, it has its origins in a larger opus, The Pilgrim's Progress, but the composer declined to title that work an opera (it is a series of tableaux founded on Bunyan's allegory), resolutely referring to it as a Morality. Moreover, Vaughan Williams reworked Watchful's Song, designating the result a concert version song for voice and piano that 'differs considerably' from its original form in the Morality.

The Pilgrim's Progress  was something of a life-long preoccupation for Vaughan Williams. He worked on it fitfully for well over thirty years. The musical material which is Watchful's Song  was composed in 1952, almost as an afterthought, to provide a musical intermezzo between acts. The text is an amalgam of lines, selected by the composer, from the Book of Psalms and the Book of Isaiah:

Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

Except the Lord keep the house the watchman waketh but in vain.
The Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep peace: the whole earth is at rest and is quiet.

Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord,
    who hath made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved. He that keepeth thee shall not sleep. Behold, he who keepeth thee
     shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord himself is thy keeper, he shall preserve thee from all evil: yea, it is even he that shall keep thy
     soul, from this time forth for evermore.

Into thy hands I commend my spirit, O Lord.

Text Oxford University Press 1952. Reproduced by permission.

The rondo-like form of the text shapes the music in an intriguing way, for the composer alternates between the Phrygian mode and major tonalities, purposefully reserving the modal manner for the recurring rondo line while casting the intermediate lines in more expansive tonal settings. The care he took to contrive this contrast should alert us to the import he attached to it.

The controlling feature of the Phrygian mode is, of course, the quality of the second note of its scale--F. If this note is altered to F-sharp, modality is lost and tonality established. The matter remains ambiguous until this note has been unequivocally stated, and Vaughan Williams leaves no doubt about his intention. The piano prelude opens with a series of haunting F-natural appoggiaturas, declared in octaves (one would say boldly, save for the pianissimo  marking), against a Phrygian tonic drone. This is followed by an ornate preview of the vocal melody, also heard against the tonic drone. But as that melody lacks the note F, the composer takes care to remind us of it (again in octaves), just before the voice enters.

The singer delivers the opening rondo line in an extended unaccompanied measure which is filled with gently flowing melody, considerable rhythmic interest and chant-like metrical freedom. Nothing thus far has suggested tonality, yet Vaughan Williams, in an abundance of caution, reaffirms modality by preceding the only F allotted the singer with a gratuitous natural sign. Clearly, he wanted no mistake about this!

The singer's opening line contains so many repetitions of the textual material that to repeat it all a second time seems redundant, but it is the composer's wish that it be done.

The unmistakable arrival of tonality coincides with the next line of text. The first sentence is abruptly defined by E major, the second by D major. Then those F-natural octaves sound once again in the piano (like an alluring call: 'Phrygian, Phrygian, Phrygian'), to announce the return of modality and a rondo line for the singer.

I regret dwelling so on the formal structure of this song, but the matter was clearly of great importance to the composer. And having thus been alerted to this much of his plan, the rest of it is easily discerned.

What a magnificently crafted and profoundly peaceful reverie this is. Any singer with the requisite range (C sharp below the treble staff to top space E) and a good legato manner, should consider having it in their repertoire as it is equally appropriate for either a sacred service or a formal recital program.

Watchful's Song  is but one of seven songs Vaughan Williams reworked from his Pilgrim's Progress  material. All are published by Oxford University Press.


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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633