Vaughan Williams’s cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem, is a profoundly moving work. It made a good companion piece with Elgar’s Spirit of England, both of which were performed at the concert in Chester Cathedral (19 July) that I wrote about in my last post.
Dona Nobis Pacem was commissioned in 1936 for the 100th anniversary of Huddersfield Choral Society, composed at a time, therefore, when fears of a second world war were growing. Whereas both the words and the music for Spirit of England were written at the start of the First World War, the words that Vaughan Williams chose were drawn from poetry by Walt Whitman relating to the American War of Independence, from a speech by John Bright campaigning against the Crimean War, and from various Old Testament sources concerning biblical strife. The liturgical words, ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’, sung by the soprano soloist (Judith Howarth on this occasion), start the cantata, but it is the last three words that form the basis of this movement, as the choir takes up the theme, and the plea for peace rises to a climax of excruciating intensity.
There is no break between the movements, and as the soprano sings her last forlorn-sounding phrases, martial music grows in the orchestra and there is a splendid outburst with the first of the Whitman poems: ‘Beat! Beat! Beat!’. This movement, like the first part of Elgar’s piece, is full of energy and excitement, martial music that was sung vigorously by Chester Festival Chorus. The next poem, ‘Reconciliation’, is set to music of a very different kind. The solo baritone (James Burton in the Chester performance) sings a beautifully lyrical melody to the words ‘Words over all, beautiful as the sky…’, which are then taken up by the chorus. It is worth quoting the last 3 lines of this text:
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.
I recall the words of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’), written about 50 years later, which Britten sets in the War Requiem.
The soprano’s final quiet ‘Dona nobis pacem’ leads into the drum beats of a funeral march, the ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’. The music is subdued to begin with but rises to a climax with the words ‘I hear the great drum pounding…’. Snare drums and brass take over for a strong instrumental interlude before a gentler section as the chorus sing about the father and son being buried in the same grave. Vaughan Williams gives the words ‘O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!’ to unaccompanied choir, a musical phrase of tender beauty that is echoed in the final (also unaccompanied) line: ‘My heart gives you love’.
Drum beats gradually dying away lead into the next section which sets John Bright’s words about ‘The Angel of Death’ sung by the baritone almost like recitative. A desperate cry of ‘Dona nobis pacem’ from the soprano fails to halt the martial tone of the music as the chorus sing words from Jeremiah (8:15-22): ‘We looked for peace, but no good came’.
The turning point in the cantata comes with the baritone’s great declamatory phrase: ‘O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea be strong’ (Daniel, 10:19). And from Haggai (2:9), ‘The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former…and in this place will I give peace’. Another orchestral interlude, quiet, mostly strings, introduces the final chorus based on words from the Old Testament – words of optimism which foretell a future of righteousness and peace. The music at this point is in the positive key of C major, and the chorus sings either in unison or in firm block chords. The final line from Luke (2:14), ‘Glory to God in the highest…’, is set to music characterised by the joyful spirit we associate with Christmas. But the piece ends quietly with the solo soprano’s final plea for peace.
As the music came to an end in the cathedral, James Burton, the conductor, seemed to hold time in his hands as the final echoes died away and the emotions aroused by the music simmered down. There was a long pause before the applause started.
Anxious to listen again to this work, which had been performed so magnificently by the RLPO, Chester Festival Chorus and the two soloists, Judith Howarth and William Dazeley, I looked on YouTube and found a very good performance with Richard Hickox conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the soprano solo sung by Yvonne Kenny and, instead of a single baritone soloist, Bryn Terfel and Philip Langridge (tenor). One big advantage of this recording is that it is accompanied by the vocal score.