From Allen Guelzo's review of a biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams:
More people today encounter Vaughan Williams in church, through their hymnals, choir anthems, and cantatas, than in the concert hall, especially in the United States. As editor of The English Hymnal and then later Songs of Praise, Vaughan Williams introduced a wealth of arrangements from folk-song (an example being the tune 'Forest Green' for "O Little Town of Bethlehem") and his own compositions ("For All The Saints," "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones," and "Come Down, O Love Divine"). But Vaughan Williams, even though the son of a clergyman, shunned the title of Christian. ....
...[World War I] scarred Vaughan Williams in the same way, if not to the same depth, that it had scarred his entire generation. Musical friends and protégés—George Butterworth in particular—had been gassed, killed, maimed, and mentally destroyed, and his own tasks as a medical orderly gave him a close-enough view of the mass human destruction the 1914-18 war had wrought to darken several lifetimes. No sooner was he back at composing than a fountain of religious works erupted: the motet O vos omnes and the Mass in G (1920-1), The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, adapted from Bunyan (1922), and the oratorio Sancta Civitas on St. John's Revelation (1923), all of which exude a deadly serious treatment of their texts. And the Mass contains a cry of musical anguish in the 'Agnus Dei' that confounds any attempt to explain it away as conventionality. All through the Blitz, Vaughan Williams would read "the epistle and Gospel for the week" from the Book of Common Prayer to Adeline after breakfast, and the manuscript of the slow movement of the 5th Symphony in 1943 bears this heading from Bunyan: Upon that place there stood a cross and a little below a sepulchre. Then he said, 'He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.' ....
This raises the question of how "a declared agnostic" should have been able (as Ursula Vaughan Williams put it) "all through his life, to set to music words in the accepted terms of Christian revelation as if they meant to him what they must have meant to George Herbert or to Bunyan." Must have meant? How, exactly, does an agnostic capture what the Christian revelation means to its followers without the results reeking of insincerity? ....
Vaughan Williams once commented that "the object of all art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties—of that in fact which is spiritual." .... At best, one can say, I think, that Ralph Vaughan Williams enjoyed that 'partial' revelation. But he saw only in part of what he might have seen in full, and not through a glass darkly. [more]
|Come down, O love divine,
seek Thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with Thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.
|Let holy charity
mine outward vesture be,
and lowliness become mine inner clothing;
true lowliness of heart,
which takes the humbler part,
and o'er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.
|O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let Thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
|And so the yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes its dwelling.
A Vaughan Williams Elegy | Books and Culture