04 April 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (46):
‘Dona nobis pacem’ 6 ‘Dona nobis pacem’

A prayer for the healing of the nations at Westminster Abbey (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 [4 April 2015] is Easter Eve and the last day of Lent. The appointed readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for today are: Job 14: 1-14; Psalm 31: 1-4, 15-16; I Peter 4: 1-8; and Matthew 27: 57-66

In these closing days of Lent, the six days of Holy Week, I have been 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 [4 April 2015], on Easter Eve, I am listening to the sixth and movement, ‘Dona nobis pacem

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

6, ‘Dona nobis pacem

The fifth movement, ‘The Angel of Death,’ which I was listening to yesterday [Good Friday, 3 April 2015], begins with the baritone soloist and a quote from John Bright’s speech in the House of Commons in 1855, 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 the dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem, which opens this final movement.

In this final movement, Vaughan Williams compiles a number of Biblical sayings urging communal action for peace. With the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death, the chorus bursts into another cry for peace.

The attraction these Biblical texts held for Vaughan Williams is puzzling to many. At Cambridge, Bertrand Russell described him as “the most frightful atheist.” By the 1930s, the music critic Frank Howes (1891-1974), editor of the journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, described him as a “cheerful Christian agnostic.” Yet much of the composer’s work throughout his life is concerned with the journey of the soul.

The movement opens with sombre quotes from the Book of Jeremiah, with the soprano and choir intervening with the plea, “Dona nobis pacem.”

But more trouble stalks the land: “We looked for peace, but no good came...” The snorting of Dan’s horses momentarily recalls the apocalyptic equine visions of Vaughan Williams’s earlier oratorio, Sancta Civitas (1923-1925).

The words of Jeremiah continue mournfully: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved...”

The solo baritone is reassuring “O man, greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee.”

Chorus basses intone the great text from Micah, almost every word a poem: “Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The word spreads among all instruments and tongues in prospect of a New Jerusalem: bells ring out in a riotous succession of keys and peals.

The movement then continues with more optimistic texts, including a brief setting of the news of the angels at Christmas: Gloria in excelsis Deo, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward me.” A phrase that sometimes is too familiar, is repeated, ringing with celebratory optimism.

It ends with a quiet coda of Dona nobis pacem, introduced by the soprano again, adding the choir to finish the piece. The soprano’s “Dona nobis pacem,” floating hauntingly overhead, sounds a warning that we must heed, lest we revert and again sacrifice “righteousness and peace” which “have kissed each other” to war.

Her voice alone lingers at the end like a solitary ray of hope, a light in the night. The final message is optimistic. Grant us peace.

“We looked for peace, but no good came” … the Garden of Remembrance in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

6,Dona Nobis Pacem

Dona nobis pacem.

We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble! The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan; the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land … and those that dwell therein …

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved …

Is there no balm in Gilead?; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

Jeremiah 8: 15-22

O man, greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong.

Daniel 10: 19

The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the former … and in this place will I give peace.

Haggai 2: 9

Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall there be war any more. And none shall make them afraid, neither shall the sword go through the land. Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. Open to me the gates of righteousness, I will go into them. Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled; and let them hear, and say, it is the truth. And it shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and see my glory. And I will set a sign among them, and they shall declare my glory among the nations. For as the new heavens, and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, so shall your seed and your name remain for ever.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.

apapted from Michah 4: 3 Leviticus 26: 6; Psalms 85: 10, 118: 19; Isaiah 43: 9, 66: 18-22; Luke 2: 14.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, in Islandbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Grant, Lord,
that we who are baptized into the death
of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
may continually put to death our evil desires
and be buried with him;
and that through the grave and gate of death
we may pass to our joyful resurrection;
through his merits, who died and was buried
and rose again for us,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Series concluded

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