01 April 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (43):
‘Dona nobis pacem’ 3, ‘Reconciliation’

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral seen from the gates of the Garden of Remembrance in Lichfield … the lettering on the gates says: ‘Pax 1919’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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 [1 April 2015] is the Wednesday in Holy Week, and the Year B readings for today in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 70; Hebrews 12: 1-3; John 13: 21-32.

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 [1 April 2015], I am listening to the third movement, ‘Reconciliation.’

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

3, Reconciliation

The heart of Dona nobis pacem is found in the third movement, Reconciliation.’ In this movement, ‘Vaughan Williams uses this heart-wrenching poem by Walt Whitman in its entirety.

Although Whitman’s long lines are not easy to set to music, the words have an almost intolerable beauty, marked by truth and compassion in the face of the shocking carnage suffered by humanity.

‘Reconciliation’ transcends the threatening atmosphere with a striking, bitter-sweet moment. Set like a lullaby, Whitman’s text offers a promise to the dead enemy – “a man divine as myself” – that time will wash away the awful deeds of war, a promise sealed with a kiss.

The text is matched in perfect spirit by the beautiful setting by Vaughan Williams, sung by the commanding yet gentle voice of the baritone soloist. The baritone introduces the first half of the poem, which the choir echoes and varies.

The baritone then continues with the rest of the poem, followed by the choir presenting a new variation of the first half.

At the end, the soprano repeats a variation of Dona nobis pacem, which we heard in the first movement, hauntingly soaring above the final lines of the chorus.

The war memorial in Grantchester Churchyard … the name of the poet Rupert Brooke is inscribed alongside those of parishioners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

3, Reconciliation

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly,
Wash again and ever again this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.


Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters,
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings
of this present time,
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

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: 4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’

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