02 April 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (44):
‘Dona nobis pacem’ 4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’

A wreath of poppies on the memorial to 19-year-old Private Robert Davies in Lichfield City station who was murdered 25 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 [2 April 2015] is Maundy Thursday. The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Eucharist today are: Exodus 12: 1-4, [5-10], 11-14; Psalm 116: 1, 10-17; I Corinthians 11: 23-26; and John 13: 1-17, 31b-35.

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 continuous 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 [2 April 2015], I am listening to the fourth movement, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans.’

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

4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’

Vaughan Williams based this movement on an earlier setting of the same words he had composed in 1914, before the outbreak of World War, and which he now incorporates into Dona nobis pacem.

This is a setting for a third poem by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), ‘Dirge for Two Veterans,’ from Drum-Taps (1865). The poem provides a second drum study for Vaughan Williams, but the drums this time are not the drums of war but the drums heard after war, the drums of death and burial, the drums of mourning and a funeral procession.

The drums and brass are transformed into instruments of noble commemoration; the strings and harp create a serene field filled by the choir fill with tender, loving words.

We are invited into a moonlit scene where we find a mother, highlighted by the moon, watching the funeral march for her son and husband, who have both been killed together in battle.

Her grief is symbolic of the grief shared by all families when lives are cut short one generation after another.

A compassionate world witnesses the scene with one heart, giving love as the moon gives light. The mourning turns to an outpouring of compassion and love as the wife and mother opens her heart and pours out her love for husband and son.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

A wreath of poppies on my grandfather’s grave in Portrane, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’

The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finished Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.

Lo, the moon ascending!
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon;
Immense and silent moon.

I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-keyed bugles;
All the channels of the city streets they’re flooding,
As with voices and with tears.

I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring;
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.

For the son is brought with the father;
In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell;
Two veterans, son and father, dropped together,
And the double grave awaits them.

Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive;
And the daylight o’er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumined;
(’Tis some mother’s large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)

O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

Collect of Maundy Thursday:

God our Father,
you have invited us to share in the supper
which your Son gave to his Church
to proclaim his death until he comes:
May he nourish us by his presence,
and unite us in his love;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Almighty God,
at the Last Supper your Son Jesus Christ
washed the disciples’ feet
and commanded them to love one another.
Give us humility and obedience to be servants of others
as he was the servant of all;
who gave up his life and died for us,
yet is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ,
in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us a memorial of your passion.
Grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
the fruits of your redemption,
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


O God,
your Son Jesus Christ has left us this meal of bread and wine
in which we share his body and his blood.
May we who celebrate this sign of his great love
show in our lives the fruits of his redemption;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Tomorrow: 5, ‘The Angel of Death’

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