Here’s a perfect marriage between words and music. You might be familiar with “The Call” either as one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Five Mystical Songs” for baritone solo (1911) or as the hymn “Come, my way, my truth, my life,” which is a simplified version of the song for congregational singing.
A rendition of the solo song:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath,
such a truth as ends all strife,
such a life as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
such a light as shows a feast,
such a feast as mends in length,
such a strength as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move,
such a love as none can part,
such a heart as joys in love.
This poem is straightforward in expression – these are not difficult words – but deep with meaning (and rich with Biblical allusions that inform its meanings). As T. S. Eliot notes, “Herbert is a master of the simple everyday word in the right place, and charges it with concentrated meaning.”
We could make almost the same claim for Vaughan Williams as a composer. His setting of this poem reflects the directness of Herbert’s words, allows space for the concentrated meanings to begin to unfold, and musically heightens the emotion in just the right places to support the emotional movement of the poem. Let’s look at an example of each of these qualities:
Each stanza begins with a direct appeal: “Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life” and so on. And, although those terms lend themselves to a lot of contemplation to unpack all of their significance, they are simple everyday words in themselves. Vaughan Williams sets the opening words to an ascending triad (foreshadowed by the piano’s opening notes), which immediately outlines the tonality of the song and underscores the vigour and confidence of this appeal.
I only have room to hint at the concentrated meaning in Herbert’s poem. To take some of the implications that arise in a single line:
such a light as shows a feast
- ‘the light of the world’
- the feast as the Eucharist
- Herbert also refers to prayer as “the Church’s banquet” in another poem
- an illuminating light that makes a feast visible
- the light as a miracle that signifies (shows) that its author is the feast
It goes on… And a great deal of the pleasure in the poem and the song is in ‘turning the diamond’ to allow different facets of its meaning to appear to you at different times. Vaughan Williams has used a simple structure, the vocal line musically identical in the first two stanzas and only departing a little from its pattern in the third stanza. The harmonic setting is inspired but the accompaniment is self-effacing, giving all the attention to the lyrics.
Emotion – ‘mystical’
Vaughan Williams called his collection “Five Mystical Songs,” clearly thinking of the poems’ sense of direct apprehension of God – the type of communion that is associated with contemplation or ecstasy. So how does Vaughan Williams respond to this aspect of “The Call”? I think that it is in musical extension of lyrical meaning that Vaughan Williams would have felt that the song is musically ‘mystical.’ For example, the melisma (stretching out one syllable over many notes) he introduces at the end of each stanza and at the height of the final stanza:
Melisma – certainly in Vaughan Williams’ music, as in the Church’s long history of jubilation in Alleluias – is the point at which pure musical expression begins to convey what is inexpressible in words alone. So when Vaughan Williams causes the song to move towards wordless music, he implies that here are the moments at which the speaker’s heart is full to overflowing – that here, the poet’s work is continued by the composer.
 T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (London: Longmans, Green, 1962), 8.
 Dennis Lennon, Turning the diamond: Exploring George Herbert’s images of prayer (London: SPCK, 2002).