“this was a Messiah with few if any soft spots, from crisp vocal work from the Singers, even in knotty sections ...”
Channing Gray
Providence Journal
15 December 2019
(Handel Messiah)


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Dona Nobis Pacem  (1936)

“The duty of the words is to say just as much as the music has left unsaid and no more.”

— Ralph Vaughan Williams

“[His] main inspiration is drawn not from the soil of England, but from the whole world going mad around him.”

— Simon Heffer
Vaughan Williams (2000)

“I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings”

— Walt Whitman (1819-92)
Leaves of Grass (1891)

“Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
 Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage
        must in time be utterly lost,
 That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly,
        wash again and ever again this soiled world”

— Walt Whitman

Notes on the 20th Century

For all its notable scientific and technical achievements, the 20th century troubled the human race as no other century had. Robert S. McNamara, the Vietnam-era secretary of defense, described 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.

Knowing what was in store for the world during the 20th century, we may find our centennial celebration of the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars” — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — somewhat bittersweet.

There are lessons to be learned from war, but that wisdom is hard-won. Walt Whitman, the 19th-century poet whose “barbaric yawp” speaks clearly even to the 21st century, learned his lessons in Civil War military hospitals with their horrific scenes of incomprehensible carnage. His verse is at the core of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ choral masterpiece, Dona Nobis Pacem — itself a warning against the rising tide of war in the mid-1930s.

The quest for peace has engaged poets and musicians for millennia: Lamah rag’shu goyim? Quare fremuerunt gentes? Warum toben die Heiden? Why do the nations so furiously rage together?

Dona nobis pacem — grant us peace — is the last phrase of the Vaughan Williams work and the last sound heard in this Armistice Centennial 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 must continue.

Notes on Ralph Vaughan Williams and 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 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’ 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’s poetry 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, 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’ 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’ 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 were written by Jameson Marvin, emeritus director of choral activities at Harvard University. They appear here with his permission and may not be used elsewhere without consent.

Dona Nobis Pacem  (1936)
Poetry of Walt Whitman, House of Commons speech by John Bright, scripture

I. (from the Latin Mass)

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
(Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world, grant us peace.)

II. (Walt Whitman, from “Beat! Beat! Drums!” 1861)

Beat! beat! drums! — blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows — through the doors — burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet — no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field, or gathering in his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums — so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums! — blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities — over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? No sleepers must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day — no brokers or speculators — would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? Would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums — you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums! — blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley — stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid — mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums — so loud you bugles blow.

III. Reconciliation  (Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, 1867)

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin — I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

IV. Dirge for Two Veterans  (Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, 1891)

   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.

V.  (John Bright, from his speech in the House of Commons, February 23, 1855)

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.

(from the Latin Mass)
Dona nobis pacem.

(Jeremiah 8:15-22)
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?

VI.  (a scriptural montage)

(Daniel 10:19)
O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong.

(Haggai 2:9)
The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former ... and in this place will I give peace.

(from Micah 4:3, Leviticus 26:6, Psalms 85:10 and 118:19, Isaiah 43:9 and 56:18-22, Luke 2:14)
Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
And none shall make them afraid, neither shall the sword go through their 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.

(from the Latin Mass)
Dona nobis pacem.