Music in a Time of War: Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem”

The Minnesota Orchestra asked me to provide program notes in Showcase magazine for the upcoming concert of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. Since I love both the composer and the work, I was all too happy to comply. You can see the pages here; but with the Orchestra’s support, I’m also providing my program notes below.

Please come out this concert if it is at all possible—it features powerful music that calls on us to remember our shared humanity and work for peace. Plus, the concert serves as a reunion with our artistic partners from South Africa! The work will be performed with the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers, and 29:11, along with soloists Goitsemang Lehobye and Dashon Burton. Tickets and further information are available at the Orchestra’s website, here.

And look for me among the singers… I’m thrilled to be performing in this concert, too!

* * *

Ralph Vaughan Williams was intimately familiar with the horrors of war. When World War I broke out, the 42-year old British composer immediately volunteered for service as an ambulance driver on the front lines, where he witnessed unspeakable carnage. He later served as an artillery officer, and the thundering of the big guns would ultimately destroy his hearing. Vaughan Williams’ wartime experiences affected him profoundly, shaping his entire view of human nature. After the war, he grappled with these experiences through his music, seeking to come to terms with all that he had seen and to rediscover his place in civil society.



Vaughan Williams during World War I

During the 1930s, however, his journey toward healing was interrupted, as the tides of war threatened to overtake the world again. Vaughan Williams watched the rise of fascism with growing alarm, and was particularly horrified by Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. In 1936, the Huddersfield Choral Society commissioned Vaughan Williams to write a large-scale work in honor of its centennial year. The composer threw himself into the project, titled Dona Nobis Pacem—Latin for “grant us peace,” a phrase familiar from its use in the traditional Christian Mass—using the opportunity to create a work that would encapsulate his feelings on war, serve as a warning against violence, and implore us to recall the better angels of our nature.


Art in a Time of War

The first performance was given in Huddersfield on October 2, 1936, with Renée Flynn and Roy Henderson as soloists, along with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates. It was an immediate success; a month later Vaughan Williams conducted a performance broadcast on the BBC, and the work was performed frequently across Britain over the next 10 years. The work clearly captured the anxious mood in Britain in the years leading up to the war, and in particular served as a rallying cry for the anti-war movement. On the eve of the Blitz, the BBC tried unsuccessfully to broadcast the work throughout Germany as a piece of musical propaganda. During the war itself, dozens of British ensembles performed it across the country to help maintain war-time morale, and assure the population that Britain—and humanity—would survive.

Like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Dona Nobis Pacem is a work that begins in darkness before rising toward the light. The intent, however, is very different. It delivers an urgent cry for universal harmony in the face of looming horror, and a call to take a stand for peace—before it is too late. Vaughan Williams lived out the message of the work personally. Shortly after its premiere, he founded the Dorking Refugee Committee to assist victims of Nazi persecution and resettle them in Britain. During the war he personally escorted Jewish schoolchildren to a safe haven in Surrey, and housed refugees in his own home.


The Music: A Cry for Peace

Dona Nobis Pacem is structured as an “anthology” cantata—a work which brings together very different texts to make a unified whole. As such it directly foreshadowed, and partially inspired, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. The words come from the Bible, from poems by Walt Whitman, and even from a speech to British Parliament, with each section flowing together without pause.


I. Agnus Dei

The work opens with a fearful prayer in Latin sung by solo soprano, taken from the final line of the traditional Christian Mass: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.” This prayer becomes the emotional foundation of the work, reappearing throughout and linking its various sections together. The soprano’s prayer is immediately taken up by the chorus, rising into a cry of desperation before sliding into silence.

II. Beat! Beat! Drums!

Distant drums shatter the stillness, imitating the artillery guns Vaughan Williams knew all too well. Suddenly, the chorus erupts with great intensity heralding the arrival of war, pounding out words to the first of three Walt Whitman settings that harken to the poet’s experience as a combat nurse during the American Civil War. Vaughan Williams uses the chorus to create massive blocks of sound, sung with percussive clarity amidst twisting chromatic harmonies that clash against each other, while brass fanfares rip across the orchestral texture. Finally exhausted by the onslaught, the music subsides into stillness.

III. Reconciliation

As the violence fades, Vaughan Williams calls forth a quieter section that grapples with a key idea of the work: reconciliation. In this second Whitman setting, the baritone describes a landscape so beautiful that all violence done there must be forgotten. He then sees the body of his one-time enemy; too late, he recognizes their shared humanity. As the body is prepared for burial, the baritone provides a final kiss of benediction. The chorus reprises the earlier theme of a lovely landscape, but it is now shadowed by remorse.

IV. Dirge for Two Veterans

The slow beating of drums introduces the “Dirge for Two Veterans,” the final Whitman poem. This is the work’s most extended section, which lays bare the cost of violence in personal terms. The scene is one of exceptional pathos, describing a funeral cortege for a father and son who fell together in battle. The chorus narrates the action in richly-harmonized vocal lines, against accompaniment that emphasizes trumpets and drums.

V. The Angel of Death

The tragedy of the previous movement gives way to despair. The baritone sings out lines from John Bright’s famous 1855 speech given in opposition to the Crimean War, draped with chilling imagery from the Bible’s Old Testament. The mood is heightened further when the chorus enters with words from the Book of Jeremiah, fearing that peace itself is dead. At this emotional nadir of the work, the people ask, where is healing? Where is hope?

VI. O Man Greatly Beloved!

And there comes an answer. In a gesture similar to that of Beethoven’s Ninth, the baritone stands up and calls us back to ourselves, asking us to be brave. His words blossom into a radiant call for rejuvenation and a renewed sense of shared humanity. Peace is possible. Together, we can remake the broken world. As in Beethoven, the chorus answers, and with growing fervor describes a new world where we have learned the lessons of the violent past, and committed ourselves to a more humane future. The orchestra sparkles like fireworks and a multitude of bells ring out together, while the chorus soars like a host of angels welcoming a new dawn. Finally, the chorus and soprano close the work with an exquisite, yet hushed return to the opening prayer—grant us peace.

* * *


The composer in 1936

The Text

I. Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi Dona nobis pacem

(Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace)


II. Beat! beat! drums!

Beat! beat! drums! – blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows – through the doors – burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet – no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field, or gathering in his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums – so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums! – blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities – over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for the sleepers at night in the houses? No sleepers must sleep
in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day – would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums – you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums! – blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley – stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid – mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow.

     -Walt Whitman


III. Reconciliation

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.

     -Walt Whitman


IV. Dirge for Two Veterans

The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finished Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking
Down a new-made double grave.

Lo, the moon ascending,
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
Immense and silent moon.

I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-keyed bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they’re flooding
As with voices and with tears.

I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring,
And every blow of the great convulsive drums
Strikes me through and through.

For the son is brought with the father,
In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans, son and father, dropped together,
And the double grave awaits them.

Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o’er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

In the eastern sky-up buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumined,
‘Tis some mother’s large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.

O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

     -Walt Whitman


V. The Angel of Death

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one as of old….. to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on.

     -John Bright


We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!

The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan; the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land….. and those that dwell therein…..

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved….

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

     -Jeremiah 8: 15-22


VI. O Man Greatly Beloved 

O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong.

     -Daniel 10: 19

The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former…. and in this place will I give peace.

     -Haggai 2: 9

Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
And none shall make them afraid, neither the sword go through their land.
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Open to me the gates of righteousness, I will go into them.
Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled; and let them hear, and say, it is the truth.
And it shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues.
And they shall come and see my glory. And I will set a sign among them, and they shall declare my glory among the nations.
For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,
so shall your seed and your name remain for ever.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.

-Adapted from Micah 4: 3; Leviticus 26: 6; Psalms 85: 10 and 118: 19; Isaiah 43: 9 and 66: 18-22; and Luke 2: 14

Dona nobis pacem.




3 thoughts on “Music in a Time of War: Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem”

  1. Scott Chamberlain: As a Freshman in college in 09/1968, most of the music I knew was for flute or piano or both as well as much orchestral music. Yet in the fall of 1968 the Illinois Wesleyan University Chorus / Orchestra and soloists presented this work at another “appropriate time.” I did not know this work existed until that day. But I was blown away by that performance and the work itself and have suggested to several people that they attend this concert if it is the only one they go to this year. Plus I could not live without a recording of this work. It stands up there with the greatest choral works ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have for some time felt the need to register my personal dislike of the music of Vaughan Williams. I am an Anglophile in many things, but not in this. I believe in artistic freedom, even license, but if this composer ever felt he had any, he did not exercise it. Freedom of expression is something undervalued in British culture generally; they had JMW Turner and they had James Whistler (originally American), some very good dramatists and poets. They had Benjamin Britten, Monte Python, and the rockers of the ’60s and ’70s. Who else can you think of . . .? I’m not sure why I notice all this so clearly. Am I detecting the deadening influence of their state religion on Brit politics and culture in this music? It’s sentimental —- not in a good way.


    • Thanks for the response! I cordially disagree, but it is that multiplicity of opinions in the world of music that make it such a deep, engaging topic for discussion. And I’d also make clear that there are folks whose friendship I value, and opinions I respect, who absolutely can’t stand Vaughan Williams’ music… so you are not alone!


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