The instrumental Overture introduces themes from three of the subsequent choral movements. The first, a rising ‘call’ for solo horn, is used throughout the work, as a key theme in the second movement (‘A song of prayerfulness’) but also appearing in several others, as a motif signifying the Separatists offering up prayer to God. The other themes used in the Overture are the ‘meditation’ theme also from movement 2, the solo melody from ‘Upon our way’ (movement 10) and the ‘refuge’ theme from the ‘A song of persecution’ (movement 6).
2. A song of prayerfulness
The text of this movement, beginning ‘Ponder my words, O Lord: consider my meditation’ is selected from Psalm 5. The movement employs the horn ‘prayer’ motif as well as a gently undulating figure in the violins signifying ‘meditation’. The movement sets up the story of the Separatists’ life of prayerful dedication.
3. Recitative – the Separitists
The first of the recitative movements – solo narratives sparsely accompanied only by piano, which provide structure for the work – introduces the story of the 17th century religious Separatists in and around Gainsborough, who, in the words of William Bradford, a leading figure in the movement and contemporary chronicler of the story, ‘lived together as a body, in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord’.
4. A song of faithfulness
This gently flowing and peaceful movement uses words from several psalms to portray the Separatists as living a life apart, dedicated to God: ‘Blessed are they that have not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners’. The chorus is joined by the mezzo soprano soloist in a more lively and joyful middle section, then returning to the opening melody in looking forward to the eventual success of the Separatists’ quest: ‘They that keep God’s laws shall be like trees planted by the waterside, that shall bring forth fruit in due season: look – whatsoever they do, it shall prosper.’
5. Recitative – the Separatists are persecuted
Telling how a new law effectively outlawed the Separatist movement, this brief recitative leads into…
6. A song of persecution
This movement employs the musical technique of the ‘chase’, where one part follows and echoes another at close quarters – to give a sense of the Separatists being forced to scatter as they are violently harried: ‘Lord, how are they increased that trouble me: many are they that rise against me, without any offence or fault of me, O Lord.’ The voice parts are stalked by strident figures in the strings, representing the unbending authority of those who pursue them. In the second half of the movement, the three soloists bid the Separatists to hold true to their faith, while a solo cello and the rest of the strings play the spacious ‘refuge’ theme heard in the Overture: ‘Fret not thyself because of the ungodly: put thy trust in the Lord and be doing good’. The chorus seek God’s mercy, under the shadow of whose wings ‘shall be a sure refuge’.
7. Recitative – the flight to Holland
The tenor soloist sets the scene for the Separatists’ escape to Holland, drawing parallels with the harsh treatment of ‘migrants and refugees of all ages’, which of course includes our own.
8. A song of alienation
This movement for chorus and tenor soloist is marked ‘unsettled’, and the music feels unsettling, picking its way through an unfamiliar land of shifting emphasis, harmonic uncertainty and alien-sounding, wandering melodies. The chorus call to God from a ‘strange and far-off land where no comfort is’, while the tenor draws words from the psalms to recount the rejection, suspicion and resentment so often faced by those who seek refuge: ‘I have no place to fly unto: no man cares for my soul…I am become a reproach to my neighbour: a very scorn of men and the outcast of the people’. A semichorus of singers plead for God’s mercy upon those who are ‘utterly despised’, while three solo strings act as distantly-received morse code ‘SOS’ signals, bringing to mind the dangers which thousands of migrants today face daily on the Mediterranean or in the English Channel. The movement ends optimistically, however, as the unsettled wandering of the opening is forgotten, the music’s harmonic feet are firmly planted, and the chorus sing that ‘The Lord will turn a wilderness into a standing water: and there shall he set the hungry, that they may build them a city to dwell in.’
9. Recitative – the Separatists leave Holland
The relatively peaceful years of exile in Holland are remembered briefly by the tenor soloist, before he relates that the prospect of being caught up in European religious wars prompted the Separatists to seek sanctuary further off yet, in the New World.
10. ‘Upon our way’
This prayer for mezzo soprano soloist and chorus invokes the blessing and guidance of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as they prepare for the perilous journey to America. The soloist sings the tune first heard in the Overture, and then when the choir take up this tune, the soloist elaborates above it, while the three horns return with their ‘prayer’ motif, as if to carry the invocations of the Separatists heavenward.
11. Recitative – voyage to America
The Separatists begin their journey, by way of Southampton and Plymouth, where they are forced to abandon their own leaking ship and join the rest of their company upon Mayflower and set sail for America. In the words of William Bradford, they ‘were met with many fierce storms and high seas. We committed ourselves to the will of God, and resolved to continue, though the ship was sorely shaken and cracked.’
12. A song of perseverance
This movement represents in music the horrors of a storm at sea. The violent, irregular motion of high seas is reflected in the thunderous timpani, blazing horns, harmonic clashes and changing metre, and the disjointed interjections of the chorus as they seem to be thrown up and down by the waves. They cry for God to save them, ‘for the waters have come in even unto my soul’. In a momentary lull, while the thundering storm can still be heard in the distance, the baritone soloist calls on God to hear them, and send help. As the storm gathers pace again, the chorus sing with more confidence: ‘It is the Lord that commandeth the waters…The waves of the sea are mighty and rage horribly: but yet the Lord who dwelleth on high is mightier.’ This appears to work like a charm upon the water, and the storm starts to blow itself out as the choir sing: ‘He maketh the storm to cease: so that the waves thereof are still’. The now far-off echoes of the storm portrayed by the timpanist and the menacing chords of the piano are heard dying away, until all is at peace.
13. Recitative – New England
This short introduction to the final three movements imagines the arrival into the harbour of Cape Code, with the travellers wondering what kind of ‘New England’ they would create. They agree the ‘Mayflower Compact’, the basis of the laws by which the new colony they eventually found will be governed, based upon ‘just and equal laws’.
14. Journey’s end
This is a setting of a poem by Colin Walker, taken from a sequence of poems he wrote on the Separatists’ story. It draws parallels with biblical stories – of the leading of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and of the resurrected Christ lighting a fire ashore to welcome his disciples from a night on the Sea of Galilee. Like them, the Separatists are now ‘at rest, safe anchored and free!’. The words of the Mayflower Compact are heard again, as the new settlers express the hope: ‘May peace unfettered here for aye be found.’
15. A song of deliverance
The opening of this movement is meant to convey the wonder with which the newly arrived travellers might have viewed the prospect, physical and social, of their new world. Two solo strings play an interleaved, imitative and seemingly untethered melody over a firmly grounded soft timpani roll. When the voices enter it is to reflect with awe that God has ‘turned again the captivity of Sion’, continuing the biblical analogy of the previous movement. The melody is a transformed version of the theme of the ‘chase’ from movement 6, illustrating musically that God has turned persecution into deliverance: ‘The hill of Sion is a fair place: God is well-known in her palaces as a sure refuge’. Over a return of fragments of the opening string duet, the baritone soloist enters, as William Bradford, to sing verses from a poem attributed to him: ‘From my years young in days of youth, God did make known to me his truth…In wilderness he did me guide, And in strange lands for me provide’. As the musical accompaniment strengthens, he calls on his fellow settlers to be strong in the face of challenges ahead: ‘Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust, Fear not the things thou suffer must; For whom he loves he doth chastise, And then all tears wipes from their eyes’. The chorus respond: ‘Yea, the Lord hath done great things for us already: wherein we rejoice’. This call to rejoice leads directly into the final movement.
16. A song of thanksgiving
With words selected from Psalm 136, with the constant refrain ‘O praise ye the Lord, for he is good: and his mercies endure for ever’, the chorus give thanks for their deliverance and safe arrival. The three soloists join in turn to elaborate the chorus parts, and we hear themes from several earlier movements making a return as the chorus recall that God ‘remembered us when we were in trouble’ (the ‘chase’ theme from movement 6), that he ‘led his people through the wilderness’ (the ‘alienation’ theme of movement 8), ‘gave us a land for our heritage’ (the closing theme of the same movement). All three soloists and the chorus join together as the shouts of thanksgiving become stronger and bring the cantata to a joyful close, against joyful versions of the ‘prayer’ and ‘meditation’ motifs of movement 2 in the horns and strings.