Multi-Text Anthology in the Choral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Grace Williams, and Elizabeth Maconchy, 1919–1979

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This dissertation critically examines the ways in which British composers wrote large choral works for festival audiences combining liturgical and sacred texts with poetry to expand multi-text meanings beyond a strictly religious sphere. Processes of anthologizing are considered in the present study as a textual and poetic practice in music by Vaughan Williams, and a later generation of British composers. Analyzing the use of multiple text sources in choral music with orchestral accompaniment, this dissertation addresses the moral, gender, and nationalistic values that composers inscribed in sacred compositions, expanding the traditional understanding of the liturgical and biblical texts. Analytic readings will focus on textual and musical choices used by these composers, and on readings of the texts themselves. This is an analysis of a twentieth-century genre of sacred choral music in Britain emphasizing wider themes in the culture—nationalism, grief, Welsh linguistic history, and feminism—as they interact with religious and liturgical tradition.

The text sources in these works draw from multiple languages, time periods, and textual genres. For example, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem (1936) combines Walt Whitman poetry from Leaves of Grass with liturgical and biblical texts to create an anti-war message. Herbert Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi (1950) expands the liturgy of the Requiem Mass to include sacred texts to mourn the death of his son, Grace Williams adds Welsh texts to her Missa Cambrensis (1971) to represent the strength of the Welsh language during a linguistic movement in Wales. Finally, Elizabeth Maconchy proposes feminist perspective in the libretto of her dramatic cantata, Héloïse and Abelard (1979), using liturgical texts and sacred hymns to situate the medieval love story in the setting of the cloister at Notre Dame. In analyzing these works, I reveal a pattern of choral composition responding to the religious interests of the Church of England, while acknowledging the secularizing forces in British culture. Through their music, these composers spoke directly to their audiences, while imbuing traditional sacred forms with identifiably modern cultural attitudes and concerns.






Graham, Meredith C (2021). Multi-Text Anthology in the Choral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Grace Williams, and Elizabeth Maconchy, 1919–1979. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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