03 April 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (45):
‘Dona nobis pacem’ 5, ‘The Angel of Death’

The Falling Angel, Marc Chagal (1947)

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 [3 April 2015] is Good Friday. The appointed readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for today are: Isaiah 52: 13 to 53: 12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10: 16-25 or 4: 14-16, 5: 7-9; and John 18: 1 - 19:42.

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 [3 April 2015], on Good Friday, I am listening to the fifth movement, ‘The Angel of Death.’

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

5, ‘The Angel of Death’

Vaughan Williams’s text for this movement, ‘The Angel of Death,’ is derived from a speech on 23 February 1855 in the House of Commons by the great Victorian politician and reformer John Bright. In his speech, Bright condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889) was a leading Quaker, a Radical and Liberal statesman, and one of the greatest orators of his generation. The historian AJP Taylor says “John Bright was the greatest of all parliamentary orators … the alliance between middle class idealism and trade unionism, which he promoted, still lives in the present-day Labour Party.” He is best remembered for his opposition to the Corn Laws, which came to an end in 1846.

Bright was an MP from 1843 to 1889, promoting free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. He was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In a speech in Birmingham in 1865, he became the first politician to refer to Westminster as the “Mother of Parliaments.”

Bright’s speech in 1855 draws on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spared any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted the lintels of his door posts with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this tenth and final plague. But Bright’s eloquence helped to popularise this image.

Afterwards, Benjamin Disraeli told Bright: “I would give all that I ever had to have delivered that speech.” However, the speech did not prevent the Crimean War. As Bright had predicted, the campaign wasted many lives. More were lost through incompetent preparations than on the battlefield. Despite the technical military advances the British military had acquired, the war was marked by incompetence and 600,000 people were left dead.

Shocked by the disaster, and frustrated at being unable to avert it, Bright experienced a nervous breakdown. He lost his seat as MP for Manchester, although he was soon elected MP for Birmingham in 1858.

Bright’s words seem so appropriate to quote today on Good Friday, and seem so relevant when we consider the present war in Crimea and Ukraine, 160 years after the Crimean war. But at the time Vaughan Williams was writing this oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Bright’s words were given new prominence in those fearful days in the 1930s, when they were quoted by the pacifist former Dean of Canterbury, HRL (‘Dick’) Sheppard (1880-1937) in his We Say No (1935), published a year before he founded the Peace Pledge Union and a year before Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem was first performed.

In this movement, Vaughan Williams creates an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The ostinato bass which has played out the ‘veterans’ in the last movement now plays in the Angel of Death.

The fifth movement begins with the baritone soloist and a quote from John Bright’s speech in which he tried to prevent the Crimean War: “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land...” Darkness seeps through the music, first quietly then with a dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem.

In the final movement that follows [4 April 2015], the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death shall cause the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble rolls across the land: “We looked for peace, but no good came... The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved...”

John Bright, who made his ‘Angel of Death’ speech in the House of Commons in 1855, was the first MP to refer to the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

5, ‘The Angel of Death’

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land;
you may almost hear the beating of his wings.
There is no one as of old …
to sprinkle with blood the lintel
and the two side-posts of our doors,
that he may spare and pass on.

The Collect of Good Friday:

Almighty Father,
Look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ
was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Tomorrow: 6, Dona Nobis Pacem.

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