Dona Nobis Pacem
Ralph (pronounced in the British fashion, “Rayf”) Vaughan Williams was acclaimed as Britain’s premier composer of the first half of the twentieth century. The third child of the Anglican vicar at the village of Down Ampney, (about 32 km SE of Gloucester), he was not yet three in 1875 when his father died, and his mother, a great-grandaughter of the noted potter Josiah Wedgwood, took him to live at that family’s home at Leith Hill Place, Surrey, in southern England. He studied at the Royal College of Music under Sir Charles V. Stanford, and later at Cambridge, where his friends included Bertrand Russell, Gustav Holst, Hubert Parry, and Leopold Stokowski. Abroad for a time, he studied with Maurice Ravel and Max Bruch. He did not publish any of his own work until he was 30, but during these formative years he realized that English folk music was imperiled and began collecting it. He also helped assemble The Oxford Book of Carols (still a primary resource in that field) and, in the early twentieth century, edited a major revision of the English Hymnal. His compositions began to be recognized in about 1909, and he also conducted numerous performances. His first wife, Adeline Fisher, died in 1951, long incapacitated with rheumatoid arthritis; he then married Ursula Wood, a longtime friend and noted poet, who contributed to the lyrics of some of his late works. He died in August, 1958, while Sir Adrian Boult was completing recordings of all nine of his symphonies with the London Philharmonic.
Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her 1964 biography of her late husband, describes him as “…an atheist… (who later) drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.” One possible source of his isolation from the church may have been his mother; he greatly respected her, and kept in close touch, but when she died in 1937 at the age of 95, a family friend remarked, “She belonged to a very different world from Ralph’s… (she had a) deeply evangelical austerity against which Ralph revolted with passion…”. (Frances Cornford, quoted by Ursula Vaughan Williams, op. cit.)
Tonight’s Vaughan Williams work is characteristically individualistic. The Latin title, Dona Nobis Pacem, comes from the final movement of the Latin mass; while that text appears at the beginning and end of this work, this is not a liturgical piece. Rather, it is an eloquent cry for peace. Most of the lyrics come from the works of an American poet, Walt Whitman. Represented in the remainder are a Quaker M.P., John Bright (1811-1889); the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah; and another nod to the Mass—this time an English rendering of part of the Gloria. Vaughan Williams’ approach came from its context: The work was begun in 1935, shortly after Hitler, flaunting the Treaty of Versailles, instituted compulsory conscription in Germany. Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was determined not to anger Hitler, following a policy of appeasement—which, it must be said, was not unpopular in England. Less than a year later, Hitler stationed troops in the Rhineland—another action prohibited at Versailles. Vaughan Williams—who had volunteered, at 41 years of age, in World War I, working as a battlefield medic and later as an artillery officer— wrote in August 1934, reflecting on the assassination by Nazis, the previous month, of the Austrian Chancellor: “Poor Austria—I wonder what is going to happen—this looks like the break up of everything with Mussolini thundering at the door – the funny thing is that it seems to be our pacifist party in England who are crying out for us to intervene!” (Letter to Maud Karpeles, quoted by Ursula Vaughan Williams, op. cit.) According to his widow, the European situation remained on his mind, with specific reference to Dona Nobis: “His other work (in June, 1935) belonged to a very different mood (from Five Tudor Portraits, another work from the same period). The picture of Europe was a dark one. The Dictators (sic) were declaring their aims and intentions. The Nazis were dividing the world between Aryans and Jews, in hysterical discrimination against some of their greatest citizens…Among the poems which Ralph had set to music before the First World War was the Dirge for two Veterans. This became the starting point for a new work in which he used two more poems, both of which, Beat, beat drums (sic) and Reconciliation, came from Whitman’s experiences during the American Civil War…” (U.V.W.,op. cit.).
So Vaughan Williams’ “new” work, which was premiered by Albert Coates in October 1936 at the centennial celebration of the Huddersfield Choral Society, addressed the growing British apprehension of developments on the Continent. Whitman’s poems were an obvious choice, although Whitman was not really a pacifist himself (indeed, Beat, Beat Drums was written as a patriotic rallying call for the North!). Ursula notes that the Dona Nobis Pacem premiere was broadcast, “…and among those who heard it and wrote to Ralph to praise it was Ernest Rhys, the old Welsh poet… His was a specially interesting letter for he wrote not only about Dona Nobis Pacem but also about Whitman who he had visited as a young man.” The work immediately gained popularity in England, with several additional performances in 1937-38.
But although Vaughan Williams took a unique approach to this topic, he certainly was not alone, and among those who later used similar devices were Benjamin Britten (the 1962 War Requiem), Howard Hanson (in Song of Democracy, 1957), and Leonard Bernstein (whose 1971 Mass includes apparent sacrilege in its staged performance!). Vaughan Williams’ philosophy included this reflection on his first hearing of the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi (another agnostic composer!): “That day I learnt that there is nothing in itself that is ‘common or unclean’, indeed, that there are no canons of art except that contained in the well-worn tag, ‘To thine own self be true’. (from A Musical Autobiography, included in various anthologies; see, for instance, Vaughan Williams on Music, R.V. W. & David Manning, Oxford Univ. Press, 2008)