Although the musical archives of the world have yielded up their fair share of 'lost' or forgotten early works by the great composers, few might be regarded with more surprise and excitement than A Cambridge Mass by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was completed in 1899 shortly before his 27th birthday and was successfully submitted for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Music, but remained unperformed and unpublished till now.
The work that has emerged from more than a century of obscurity is indeed a remarkable achievement, lasting 45 minutes and written for full orchestra, double chorus and SATB soloists. A setting of the Credo, Sanctus, Hosanna and Benedictus of the Mass, with an orchestral Offertorium as its second movement, this richly prescient musical outpouring shows the young composer's mastery of complex counterpoint no less than of bold melodic writing and striking orchestral gestures.
By far the largest of VW's works predating A Sea Symphony of 1909, A Cambridge Mass already exhibits a command of large choral forces, inspired in part by the example of Verdi's Requiem, which the composer had recently encountered, and which influenced him profoundly. While there are also echoes of Bach, the Viennese classical masters and of Brahms and Dvorak, the current and pulse of the music, and the grand conception, are unmistakably those of Vaughan Williams himself.