Saturday, Nov. 8, 2003, 8 p.m.
WGBH sound check
Through War and Peace
Julian Wachner, conductor
Notes on the Twentieth Century
For all its notable achievements, from Kitty Hawk to photographic fly-bys of the outer planets, the twentieth century has troubled the human race as no other century.
Robert S. McNamara, the Vietnam-era secretary of defense, describes it as by far the bloodiest in human history, with world wars, civil wars, religious wars and all manner of violent conflict directly causing the deaths of more than 160 million human beings. In the last half of the twentieth century – the part without the world wars – ethnic tensions, economic disparities, religious zealotry, political disputes and failed states have contributed to 125 wars causing 40 million deaths.
Why are the nations in an uproar?
There are lessons to be learned from war, but the wisdom that comes from experience is hard-won. Walt Whitman, the nineteenth-century poet whose “barbaric yawp” speaks clearly even to the the twenty-first century, learned his lessons in Civil War military hospitals. His verse is at the core of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ choral masterpiece, Dona Nobis Pacem – a warning against the rising tide of war in the mid-1930s.
Incessantly, and against long odds, men and women – warriors as much as civilians – stubbornly hold to a vision of lasting peace, where “none shall make them afraid, neither shall the sword go through their land.” Peace may be a vision for the meek who “scream their silence” or for the patient who “must fly on wings of stillness,” but it is not a task for the faint-hearted.
Dona nobis pacem – grant us peace – is the last phrase of the Vaughan Williams work and the last sound heard in this concert. It is sung above and beyond the chorus by the soprano soloist, perhaps a suggestion that lasting peace is still more desired than achieved and that the quest continues.
For SATB chorus
I. Introduction (Psalm 2:1-5)
Why are the nations in an uproar? Why do the people mutter empty threats?
V. Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
(The Book of Common Prayer)
Julian Wachner wrote his Canticles during the First Gulf War of 1991 not only as a political statement, but also as an expression of anxiety and dread at the horrors of war. It was not, he has said, merely the First Gulf War but all war that gave the work its impetus.
Composed originally as a companion piece for the Fauré Requiem (which, as it happens, the Singers will perform this season with the Rhode Island Philharmonic), the work was revised and presented in its current form in March 1994. The score calls for a large brace of percussion, two trumpets, two horns, harp, piano, organ and strings.
The Biblical texts that frame Shelli Jankowski-Smith’s War Poems are familiar and powerful. The passage from Psalm 2 encapsulates the war-scarred twentieth century’s most persistent and perplexing question, set by composers across the centuries: Why do the nations rage? Quare fremuerunt gentes? Warum toben die Heiden? Lamah rag’shu goyim?
The Nunc Dimittis (The Canticle of Simeon), which concludes the work, speaks to the universal quest for peace and to the lifelong constancy and optimistic expectation that the quest requires. It is the exhausted triumph of a very old and pious man who finds his lifelong expectation suddenly fulfilled.
Poet Shelli Jankowski-Smith has written the following about the verses that form movements two, three and four: “I was deeply distressed by the Persian Gulf War and had already begun this work when Julian Wachner asked me to write a text in three short parts (as he put it, ‘fast, slow, fast’) to be sung between the ‘quare fremuerunt gentes’ and the ‘nunc dimittis.’
“This is a poem of small, personal experiences which reflect timeless and universal ones. For this reason, I wanted to speak in a different voice for each segment. The text ... anchors the contemporary voices of parts II and IV with the more timeless voice of part III, in an attempt to echo the tone of the Biblical texts framing the work.
“At the time I wrote this piece, my brother was stationed at the Kuwait border as a medic/ambulance driver and was writing letters home with descriptions of life on the front. He is the voice of part IV, a person who has seen the Scuds and Patriot missiles streaking through the sky at night and watches the soldiers’ contests in which spiders and scorpions were tossed into a ring drawn in the sand so that the men could bet on which would destroy the other.
“The voice in part II describes my mother, who dealt with her anxiety by avoiding sleep to videotape the hours of nightly news coverage for weeks. It was this overwhelming sense of individual powerlessness in the face of a collective political impulse toward war that I wished to convey, the realization that the evil twins of war are both powerlessness and power.”
For SATB chorus a cappella
Agnus Dei descends from a string quartet Barber wrote in 1936. The Adagio for Strings – Barber’s arrangement of that quartet’s slow movement for string orchestra – received its premiere under Arturo Toscanini in 1938 and became one of the most cherished compositions of the twentieth century. Its haunting, contemplative mood, evocation of great sorrow, and suggestion of abiding hope led to its performance at services for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, among others. Barber completed the choral version in 1967.
Why choose the text of the Agnus Dei for a piece of music that had already found a permanent place in the orchestral repertoire? In choosing the Agnus Dei, Barber connected with one of the oldest liturgical texts in the Christian tradition, a part of the Latin Mass since 687 and in use already in the fifth century. The lamb is a metaphor whose roots lie in ancient Judaic Passover texts, continue through the books of the prophets and extend into the rich symbolic texture of the Apocalypse of John. It is the sacrifice of perfect innocence – a lamb “without blemish, a male, of one year” – that leads to deliverance.
It is the loss of innocent life that constitutes the main horror of war. In its minimalist essentials – “Have mercy on us” and “Grant us peace” – the Agnus Dei has spoken for all who face the demons of war, terror and other calamity in the twentieth century as in the fifth.
Dona Nobis Pacem
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
II. (Walt Whitman)
Beat! beat! drums! – blow! bugles! blow!
III. Reconciliation (Walt Whitman)
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
IV. Dirge for Two Veterans (Walt Whitman)
The last sunbeam
Lo, the moon ascending,
I see a sad procession,
I hear the great drums pounding,
For the son is brought with the father,
Now nearer blow the bugles,
In the eastern sky up-buoying,
O strong dead-march you please me!
The moon gives you light,
V. (John Bright)
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.
Dona nobis pacem.
VI. (Daniel 10:19)
O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong.
(Adapted from Micah 4:3, Leviticus 26:6, Psalms 85:10 and 118:19, Isaiah 43:9 and 56:18-22, Luke 2:14)
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.
Dona nobis pacem.
Vaughan Williams was 64 years old when he wrote Dona Nobis Pacem; however, the images of war remained vivid in his memory of the close-quarter violence that he had witnessed when serving (1914-18) in France during World War I. He in fact compiled the text of Dona Nobis Pacem as a scrapbook of quotations [scriptures, mass, Whitman] relevant to all that he had seen about the senseless violence of war.
Dona Nobis Pacem in fact was intended as a warning at a time when Europe was moving toward another major war. It is a work of enormous passion, overtly honest, thrilling, uplifting, yet filled with Vaughan Williams’s depth of feeling for the futility of war. Three contrasting Whitman poems are framed by words from the Latin Mass, the Old Testament prophets, and the famous House of Commons speech made during the Crimean War by John Bright.
Whitman poetry held a deep fascination for British composers in the closing years of the 19th century. Vaughan Williams was introduced to Whitman as an undergraduate at Trinity College in 1892. “I’ve never got over him, I’m glad to say,” writes the composer in 1958, at age 85. It is from Whitman’s famous American Civil War poem, Drum Taps, that Vaughan Williams draws his vivid portrayal of war, and these poems in alternation with his poignant settings of the Agnus Dei, the speech by John Bright, of an excerpt from Luke, and the Old Testament readings of Jeremiah, Daniel, Isaiah and the Psalms, inspire a deeply felt, vivid, touching and profoundly moving setting for Dona Nobis Pacem.
Vaughan Williams was the foremost English composer of the first half of the 20th century. Dona Nobis Pacem in style, form and substance with its intermingling of liturgical texts and poems on war anticipates by 20 years Britten’s War Requiem. In it we see Vaughan Williams’s eclectic compositional style: French, modal, folk, and that of his close friend Gustav Holst. English folk song and hymnody, contrapuntal works of Bach and Handel, harmonies of Debussy and Ravel, and modal Renaissance polyphony (especially of Tallis and Byrd) underpin his highly communicative style of writing.
His works reflect his philosophy: “A composer must not shut himself up and think about art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community (the whole community of English-speaking peoples on both sides of the Atlantic).” More than 1,000 choral works dot the landscape of Vaughan Williams’s oeuvre as well as nine symphonies, songs, opera, and marvelous settings of folk songs and hymns that he loved so well.
These notes on Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dona Nobis Pacem are copyright ©2003 by Jameson Marvin, director of choral activities at Harvard University. They appear here by permission and may not be used elsewhere without the author’s consent.