Ralph Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem

I’ve come to the conclusion that the works of Man terrify me more than the Works of God.1

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born into England’s upper class, destined for the nonworking life of a gentleman. But he grew up during a renaissance in English music, spurred by knighted composers Charles Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, and George Grove. By exercising their talents, these men made composing music, for the first time, a fit career for an English gentleman. At London’s Royal College of Music, Vaughan Williams studied composition under Parry, who believed England should have its own distinct music, free of German influence. In an era when many homes had pianofortes and choral societies were widespread across Ralph Vaughan WiliamsEngland, the music of the German masters ruled. Vaughan Williams and his friend Gustav Holst dedicated themselves to creating English-defined music, reviewing each other’s compositions with honesty and vision for 40 years.

Vaughan Williams was convinced that authentic English music should be rooted in folk song. Francis J. Child’s monumental collection of English and Scottish ballads, published in Boston between 1883 and 1898, was the first serious attention given to this neglected field2. In 1903, an invitation to a village tea introduced Vaughan Williams to an old song, by chance, when an old man offered to sing for him. The song resonated with the idiom that he and Holst were cultivating. The excited Vaughan Williams traveled the English countryside, ultimately collecting over 800 folk songs, which would infuse his own compositions. At the same time, he studied the ancient modes (Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian) that he found in the folk songs and Tudor polyphony, especially madrigals.3

Also in 1903, Vaughan Williams received a commission to create a new Church of England hymnal. Though an agnostic, he appreciated the aesthetics of Anglican services as part of England’s culture. He was delighted to find that many of the folk-song tunes he was unearthing fit to the words of existing hymns. He also wrote music for some hymns as “anon.” This project enabled him to use the church to promote national hymns in which he used polyphony and folk song, a radical departure from existing English church music.

Learning “Lightness and Color” from Ravel

Vaughan Williams completed his doctoral degree at Cambridge and decided to strengthen his orchestration skills. He spent hours studying the scores of Elgar, the first English composer in over 200 years to become internationally famous. Since Elgar was fully booked with students, Vaughan Williams studied orchestration with Ravel in France, where he learned to avoid the heavy Teutonic contrapuntal style and to compose with more lightness and color. His London Symphony (1914), rich in the influences of Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, and Elgar, evoked the “carefree splendour and gaieties of London.” It was a way of life about to end.

In January 1915, the first German Zeppelin air raid hit England. Vaughan Williams, 42 years old, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps, determined to go to the front immediately rather than wait to be trained and commissioned.4 He was assigned ambulance duties, transporting the wounded from the front lines. He witnessed the ravages of the Third Battle of Ypres at Flanders, the result of a terrible British miscalculation of the German army’s strength. The battle raged for months instead of weeks and led to an astounding 1,265,000 British, French, and German soldiers killed and countless wounded. By the end of the war, over 8.5 million would perish.

How does anyone recover from being in the midst of such carnage and from losing many friends? Vaughan Williams held to his belief that music was a means to preserve civilization, even amid war. He formed a military chorus and went on to dedicate his life to teaching others to make music. He promoted a “United States of the World” where “those will serve that universal state best who bring into the common fund something that they and they only can bring.”

Disoriented by the postwar environment, Vaughan Williams at first was only able to compose music that looked backward. Then, in 1926, he began to move forward again. His oratorio Sancto Civitas was filled with vision, sadness, and suffering, and the music was ahead of its time in its use of dissonance. His cantata Dona Nobis Pacem has its roots in that earlier oratorio, expressing both the composer’s and the public’s anguish over the worsening political situation in Europe, which would lead again to war. Vaughan Williams devoted the years of World War II to helping refugees find shelter and work, providing food by planting huge vegetable gardens and keeping chickens, and helping to stage free lunchtime concerts.

Dona Nobis Pacem: A Heartrending Cry

Dona Nobis Pacem, premiered in 1936, opens with a heartrending cry. Vaughan Williams’ perspective was no longer bound to the geography of England. His empathy now enfolded a world faced with another war. In setting biblical and poetic text to music, he paid subtle tribute to Verdi’s Requiem, which he admired5 – for example, the drop of a semitone on the word “dona,” bass drum key-shifts by thirds, and wild brass fanfares. Dona Nobis Pacem also anticipated by 25 years Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with its dramatic settings of Latin liturgical text and poetry and its emphasis on reconciliation. Dona Nobis Pacem was performed at countless festivals and concerts in the years leading up to World War II.

The cantata opens with a soprano solo, one voice offering an apprehensive “Agnus Dei.” The chorus joins in a fervent cry for peace. In answer, distant drums sound, no longer a contagious dance rhythm of centuries past but instead, the harbinger of war.

“Beat! Beat! Drums!” is based on a poem from Drum Taps, poetry Walt Whitman wrote after his service as a nurse in the American Civil War. He and the nation were stunned by the death toll of over 600,000 in that war’s four-year duration. This movement erupts with articulate fear, depicting a violence that destroys peaceful daily lives. In the examples – merchants and scholars disappearing while others pray, weep, and entreat – we sense the numbers of people being swept into war’s unremitting violence.

“Reconciliation” transcends the threatening atmosphere with a striking, bittersweet moment. Set like a lullaby, Whitman’s text offers a promise to the dead enemy – “a man divine as myself” – that time will wash away the awful deeds of war, a promise sealed with a kiss.

“Dirge for Two Veterans” is a moonlit scene very different from that of a romantic tryst, usually associated with moonlight. A mother, portrayed by the moon, watches over the funeral march for her son and husband, who were killed together, symbolic of all families’ losses in lives cut short from one generation to the next. A compassionate world witnesses the scene with one heart, giving love as the moon gives light.

The text of “The Angel of Death” is from renowned English orator John Bright’s 1855 lament to the House of Commons about the technically advanced, militarily incompetent Crimean War (600,000 dead). With the fearful news of the death angel’s presence, the chorus bursts into another cry for peace, but only more trouble rolls across the land.

In the last movement, Vaughan Williams compiles a number of wise biblical sayings urging communal action for peace. And whoever said peace is boring compared to war has not heard the final paean to character redeemed in the strength required to lay down arms. The “Glory to God” climax has a well-placed familiarity. Repetitions of the phrase “and on earth peace, good-will toward men” ring with celebratory optimism. Only the soprano soloist’s “dona nobis pacem” floating hauntingly overhead sounds a warning that we must heed, lest we revert and again sacrifice “righteousness and peace” to war.

— Carol Talbeck

  1. All quotes are from Vaughan Williams, by Simon Heffer, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 2000, unless otherwise noted.
  2. Whether Vaughan Williams was inspired by Child might be worth exploring. Certainly other 20th-century composers, including the folk revivalists, considered Child’s three volumes a rich musical font.
  3. The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, by Michael Kennedy, Oxford University Press, London, 1964.
  4. Although Vaughan Williams enlisted to get into the army more quickly, he was eventually sent through officer’s training and given a commission.
  5. Thanks to Steve Schwartz’s classical.net review (2000) for this insight.

Image: By Simon Harriyott, Uckfield, England via Wikimedia Commons