Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (42):
‘Dona nobis pacem’ 2, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’

‘Beat! beat! drums!’ … Bands from the Irish and British army playing at the dedication of the Cross of Sacrifice in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions each day during Lent this year, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

Today [31 March 2015] is the Tuesday in Holy Week, and the Year B readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Eucharist today are: Isaiah 49: 1-7; Psalm 71: 1-14; I Corinthians 1: 18-31; John 12: 20-36.

For these closing days of Lent, the six days of Holy Week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.

The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.

I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence, listening to one movement after another over these six days of Holy Week.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

This morning [31 March 2015] I am listening to the second movement, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’


‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

2, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’

The second movement is a violent depiction of war and a furious setting of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Beat! beat! drums!’

The words this movement are based on a poem in Drum Taps written by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). This poem was written after he had served as a volunteer nurse in the American Civil War. He was stunned by the death toll of over 600,000 in that war over the space of four years.

Whitman’s words describe the drums and bugles of war bursting through doors and windows. When war erupts, nothing and nobody is inviolate. Peaceful lives in schools and churches, of brides, farmers and sleepers, of old men and children are in turn swept aside by the warring sounds.

The setting of this movement is for choir, heralded by volleys of brass and rattling percussion. In the use of the bass drum and its key shifts by thirds, Vaughan Williams here recalls Verdi’s Dies irae.

The movement erupts with articulate fear, depicting a violence that destroys peaceful daily lives. In the examples – merchants and scholars disappearing while others pray, weep, and entreat – we sense the numbers of people being swept into war’s unremitting violence once again in the 1930s.

Remembering D-Day at the War Memorial in Penkridge, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Beat! beat! drums!

Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows – through the doors – burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet – no happiness must he have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field, or gathering in his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums – so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities – over the rumble of wheels in the streets:
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers bargains by day – [no brokers or speculators] – would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
[Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?]
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums – you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley – stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid – mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow.

Collect:

O God,
who by the passion of your blessed Son made
an instrument of shameful death
to be for us the means of life:
Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ,
that we may gladly suffer pain and loss
for the sake of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father.

Tomorrow: 3, ‘Reconciliation

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