Dona nobis pacem comes from the decade before the Second World War when Vaughan Williams composed a number of works (for example the 4th Symphony) with harder edges than some might expect from the composer most-often (unfairly) seen as ‘pastoral’. Vaughan Williams was a man who assimilated the experiences of his life with great integrity so that much of his music reflects these with thoughtfulness, rather than any sense of immediate reaction. One of the most famous examples of this is his 3rd Symphony, known as ‘Pastoral’, but deeply influenced by the composer’s experience as an ambulance orderly (while in his 40s)in the First World War. Such experiences surely mark the composition and subject matter of Dona nobis pacem. First performed in 1936 to mark the centenary of Huddersfield Choral Society, the work joins together Bible passages (mostly Old Testament prophecy, often of considerable vigour) and passages from the Latin Mass (including the title which roughly translates as ‘grant us peace’). Alongside are three poems by one of the composer’s favourite inspirations, Walt Whitman. These reflect the poet’s experience in the American Civil War, particularly the way, in the ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ set by other composers as diverse as Holst and Kurt Weill, that war has its impact on whole families. The focus is very much on the human consequences of war. To this end, at the start of the fifth movement, Vaughan Williams sets part of a speech, given in the House of Commons by the Manchester MP John Bright during the Crimean War, which makes reference again to the Old Testament and the Passover. The message given by the Baritone soloist, Andrew Davies, is that there is now no-one to mark the doors so that the Angel of Death will pass on. Vaughan Williams creates music of great rhythmic vigour and uses harsh harmonies at times to focus clearly the devastation of war. Yet throughout the work the Soprano soloist, Donna Lennard, presents the plea for peace, ‘Dona nobis pacem’ until, at the end, a vision of peace and good-will towards all is achieved. There is a definite sense that Vaughan Williams sees this as a vision for the future, rather than something which is imminently to be realised (a true reflection of the times in the 1930s) but his music brings certainty and resolution to the dissonance and turmoil of the early movements. Originally composed for large forces, Chester Bach Singers’ performance is in the arrangement authorised by the composer for piano and strings.
Getting to know the work: performances by Sir Adrian Boult from the 1960s with Sheila Armstrong and John Carol Case and more recently (2010) by David Hill with Christiana Pier and Matthew Brook are the most easily available and reflect the performing traditions of their times.