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Dona nobis pacem (Vaughan Williams)

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Dona nobis pacem, (English: Grant us peace), is a cantata written by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1936 and first performed on 2 October 1936. The work was commissioned to mark the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society. Vaughan Williams produced his plea for peace by referring to recent wars during the growing fears of a new one. His texts were taken from the Mass, three poems by Walt Whitman, a political speech, and sections of the Bible. A.V. Butcher has analysed Vaughan Williams' use of the Whitman poems in this composition.


The work is scored for chorus and large orchestra, with soprano and baritone soloists. The phrase Dona nobis pacem ("Give us peace"), in different settings, punctuates the entire piece.


The work is in six continuous parts:

  1. Agnus Dei, whose Latin text comes from the last movement in the Roman Catholic Mass. The soprano introduces the theme, singing it over the orchestra and choir. The text translates as "Lamb of God, grant us peace."
  2. Beat! Beat! Drums!, is based on the first Whitman poem. The text describes the drums and bugles of war bursting through doors and windows, disrupting the peaceful lives of church congregations, scholars, bridal couples, and other civilians.
  3. Reconciliation, uses the entire second Whitman poem. The baritone soloist introduces the first half of the poem, which the choir echoes and varies. The baritone then continues with the rest of the poem, followed by the choir presenting a new variation of the first half. At the end, the soprano repeats a variation of the Dona nobis pacem of the first movement, hauntingly soaring above the final lines of the chorus. 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.
  4. Dirge for Two Veterans, uses most of the Whitman poem. The movement was originally composed in 1914 and later incorporated into Dona nobis pacem. Here the drums return, but now in a dirge for the father and son, "dropped together", being marched in a "sad procession" to their "new-made double grave", overlooked by the "immense and silent moon". Still, for all the solemnity, the notes of hope in Whitman's poem are set to a swelling choral paean, as if to reassure us that we have indeed learned from the carnage of World War I.
  5. The fifth section, which bears no title, starts with the baritone soloist and a quote from the John Bright speech with which he tried to prevent the Crimean War ("The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land . . ."). The movement continues with somber quotes from the Book of Jeremiah, with the soprano and choir intervening with the Dona nobis pacem plea.
  6. The movement then continues with more optimistic texts, including a brief setting in English of the Gloria. It ends with a quiet coda of Dona nobis pacem, introduced by the soprano again, adding the choir to finish the piece.

Some recordings and some editions divide the last movement into two parts, between the end of the quotation from Jeremiah and the baritone's entrance with the words "O man, greatly beloved, fear not!"

Selected discography

  • BBC Music MM340 (included with BBC Music Magazine, Vol. 20 no. 4, January 2012): BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Chorus, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Cond.; RenĂ©e Flynn, soprano; Roy Henderson, baritone. Recorded before an audience in the Concert Hall, BBC Broadcasting House, November 13, 1936.
  • EMI CDM 7 69820 2: London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, Cond.; London Philharmonic Choir; Sheila Armstrong, soprano; John Carol Case, baritone.
  • Philips, SGL 5876 (original LP): Utah Symphony Orchestra; Maurice Abravanel, conductor
  • Chandos CHAN 8590: Edith Wiens, Brian Raynor Cook; London Philharmonic Orchestra; London Philharmonic Choir; Bryden Thomson, conductor
  • Naxos Catalogue No. 8.572424: Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, cond. David Hill (choral director); Christina Pier, Matthew Brook. Released Mar 29, 2010. c/w Sancta Civitas
  • References

    Dona nobis pacem (Vaughan Williams) Wikipedia

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