The text is an adaptation of the discussion about music and the music of the spheres in Act V, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Vaughan Williams later arranged the piece into versions for chorus and orchestra and solo violin and orchestra. It is approximately 13 minutes in duration.
Vaughan Williams wrote the piece as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Wood's first concert. The solo parts were composed specifically for the voices of sixteen eminent British singers chosen by Wood and the composer. In some parts of the work, the soloists sing together as a "choir," sometimes in as many as twelve parts; in others, each soloist is allotted a solo (some soloists get multiple solos). The published score places the initials of each soloist next to his or her lines.
More pieces by Vaughan Williams
- Dona nobis pacem
- Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
- O little town of Bethlehem
- The Lark Ascending
- Five Mystical Songs