The first five years of the 1920s were an extraordinarily fecund period in Vaughan Williams’s creative life. After his return to civilian life from army service, he revised and orchestrated The Lark Ascending and the opera Hugh the Drover. New compositions ranged from the Bunyan pastoral episode The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains to the Pastoral Symphony and the erotic and exotic suite for viola, orchestra and wordless chorus Flos Campi. Also there were the Mass in G minor, the neo-Baroque Violin Concerto (originally entitled Concerto Accademico), the ballet Old King Cole, a host of folksong arrangements, the suite English Folk Songs and many smaller works. Around 1924–5 he began to compose a piano concerto and two operas, Riders to the Sea and Sir John in Love.
Somewhere amid all this activity – which included teaching at the Royal College of Music and conducting the Bach Choir – he composed the 35-minute oratorio Sancta Civitas, one of his most concentrated works. It probably dates from 1924–5, although it is almost as difficult as it is with Elgar to pinpoint an exact date for many of his compositions. The text is taken from the Book of Revelation, with additions from Taverner’s Bible of 1539 and other sources, and the score is headed by a quotation in Greek from the Phaedo of Plato in which Socrates avows the immortality of the soul and says ‘It is worthwhile to stake everything on this belief’. In 1920, in his essay The Letter and the Spirit, Vaughan Williams defined the object of all art as ‘a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties — of that in fact which is spiritual’. The media used by artists of all kinds, he continued, were symbols of what lies beyond sense and knowledge. This was the nearest he came to explaining his agnosticism and is perhaps why he regarded Sancta Civitas as his favourite among his own choral works.
It is feasible that Sancta Civitas, like the Pastoral Symphony, is related to its composer’s experiences in the First World War. But whereas the symphony is devoid of violence, the oratorio’s description of the destruction of Babylon is graphic and perhaps gave a hint to Walton for Belshazzar’s Feast. Lyricism returns with the solo violin’s introduction to the episode in which the new heaven and the new earth and the holy city come down from heaven. The music here is drawn from Out of the rolling ocean, the last of three unpublished Nocturnes of 1908 to texts by Whitman. In this poem the music accompanies the words ‘Behold the great rondure, the cohesion of all, how perfect’. The link here with A Sea Symphony and the voyage of the soul scarcely needs emphasising. Elgar once told Vaughan Williams how much he admired Sancta Civitas, adding ‘I once thought of setting those words myself [in the unfinished oratorio The Last Judgement] but I shall never do that now and I’m glad I didn’t because you have done it for me’.
Sancta Civitas was first performed on 7 May 1926, the fourth day of the General Strike, in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, during a festival to celebrate the 300th anniversary of William Heather’s proposal that a chair of music should be established at the university. Sir Hugh Allen conducted the Oxford Bach Choir and Orchestral Society, with Arthur Cranmer deputising for the indisposed Keith Falkner as baritone soloist and Trefor Jones singing the short but important tenor solo. Vaughan Williams conducted the first London performance in Central Hall, Westminster, on 9 June 1926 with the Bach Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, and Roy Henderson and Steuart Wilson.