17 September 2022

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Saturday 17 September 2022

A prayer for the healing of the nations at Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (17 September) recalls Hildegard (1179), Abbess of Bingen, with a Lesser Festival.

I am back in Stony Stratford after a few days in York following my ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery in Sheffield earlier this week. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Harvest time in the fields in Calverton, near Stony Stratford (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Hildegard was born in 1098 at Böckelheim in Germany. From her earliest years, she had a powerful, visionary life, becoming a nun at the age of 18. She was much influenced by her foster-mother, Jutta, who had set up the community and whom she succeeded as abbess in 1136.

Her visions of light, which she described as ‘the reflection of the Living Light’, deepened her understanding of God and creation, sin and redemption. They were, however, accompanied by repeated illness and physical weakness. About 20 years later, she moved her sisters to a new abbey at Bingen.

She travelled much in the Rhineland, founding a daughter house and influencing many, including the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. She was a pastor and teacher, seeing herself as a ‘feather on the breath of God.’ She wrote three visionary works, a natural history and a medical compendium. She died on this day in the year 1179.

Luke 8: 4-15 (NRSVA):

4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5 ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. 6 Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.’

When he said this, he called out, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’

9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,

‘“though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.”

11 ‘This is the meaning of the parable: the seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.’

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

Today’s reflection: 6, ‘Dona nobis pacem’

For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, 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).

For these six days this 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.

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 [17 September 2022], I conclude this series of reflections drawing on the music of Vaughan Williams as I listen to the sixth movement, ‘Dona nobis pacem.’

6, ‘Dona nobis pacem’

The fifth movement, ‘The Angel of Death,’ which I was listening to yesterday [16 September 2022], 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.

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?

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

Today’s Prayer (Saturday 17 September 2022):

The Collect:

Most glorious and holy God,
whose servant Hildegard, strong in the faith,
was caught up in the vision of your heavenly courts:
by the breath of your Spirit
open our eyes to glimpse your glory
and our lips to sing your praises with all the angels;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Hildegard
that she served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ
and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week has been ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the people of Myanmar. May the forces of peace and freedom prevail over those of injustice. Let us pray for peace and prosperity for the people of Myanmar.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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