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ClassicsOnline Home » VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R.: Dona Nobis Pacem / Sancta Civitas (Pier, Brook, Staples, Bach Choir, Winchester Cathedral Choristers,Bournemouth Symphony, Hill)
Although Vaughan Williams described himself as ‘a cheerful agnostic’, he was not only steeped in the traditions of the Anglican Church, but sensitive to the mystical significance ‘of what lies beyond sense and knowledge’. Written in 1936, his cantata Dona nobis pacem sets powerful Biblical texts alongside those by Walt Whitman and John Bright and is both a warning that mankind was sliding disastrously towards another war and a plea for a world without strife. The oratorio Sancta Civitas, one of his most original choral works, strikingly deploys vocal and orchestral forces to depict the battle between good and evil from the Book of Revelation.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Dona nobis pacem • Sancta Civitas
Ralph Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge. His teachers included Parry, Stanford and later Ravel in Paris. From the outset of his career he determined to write music that would break away from the domination of European traditions; this desire led him to English folk-song and the music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, from which his own voice emerged. In 1901 the song Linden Lea first brought him to public attention and in the years that followed he was an assiduous collector of folk-songs and editor of The English Hymnal (1906). To this early period also belong On
Wenlock Edge (1908–9) and A Sea Symphony (1903–8), the first of nine symphonies that form the backbone of his achievement.
The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), the first expression of his fully mature voice, was followed by A London Symphony (1911–13) before World War I interrupted his career. To the interwar years belong A Pastoral Symphony (1921), the Fourth Symphony (1931–4), the ‘masque for dancing’ Job (1927–30), and the operas Sir John in Love (1924–8) and Riders to the Sea (1925–32).
The Fifth Symphony (1938–43) was seemingly the definitive statement of an artist reaching the autumn of life, so that the equally individual Sixth Symphony (1944–7), with its desolate Epilogue, caught critics by surprise. A commission to write music for the film Scott of the Antarctic led to the Seventh Symphony (Sinfonia Antartica, 1949–52); to the final years of his life belong the completion, after forty years gestating, of the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress (finished 1949), and the Eighth (1953–6) and Ninth Symphony (1956–8).
In Sancta Civitas (The Holy City), Vaughan Williams arguably revealed his beliefs as man and artist more than in any other of his compositions. Composed between 1923 and 1925, it sets words from the Book of Revelations in the Authorised Version with additions from Taverner’s Bible. By this time Vaughan Williams described himself as ‘a cheerful agnostic’, but one who was nevertheless steeped in the tradition of the Anglican Church, so that by
choosing texts with which his audiences were familiar they could be used as powerful symbols. Here the biblical words and the battle between good and evil become a symbol of humankind’s destructive nature and its severance from the natural order. The burning intensity of the message of Sancta Civitas is still only too relevant today.
The text too deals with the possibility of life after death as imagined in St John of Patmos’s Christian eschatological revelation. Through his inscription from Plato’s Phaedo prefacing the score, however, Vaughan Williams broadens the context from a purely Christian one. In this passage Socrates, soon to be executed, meditates on the immortality of the soul. In F.J. Church’s translation, he proposes that: ‘A man of sense will not insist that things are exactly as I have described them. But I think he will believe that something of the kind is true of the soul and her habitations, seeing that she is shown to be
immortal, and that it is worthwhile to stake everything on this belief. The venture is a fair one and he must charm his doubts with spells like these.’
Finally it was through his art as a composer that Vaughan Williams felt that he touched these mysteries, as he reflected in an essay The Letter and the Spirit, in 1920, which succinctly summarises his beliefs: ‘may we take it that the object of all art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties—of that in fact which is spiritual? And that the means we employ to induce this revelation are those very senses and
faculties themselves? The human, visible, audible and intelligible media which artists (of all kinds) use, are symbols not of other visible and audible things but of what lies beyond sense and knowledge.’
Sancta Civitas was given its première in Oxford on 7 May 1926 by the Oxford Bach Choir and Orchestral Society, with Arthur Cranmer, baritone, and Trefor Jones, tenor, conducted by Hugh Allen. Vaughan Williams himself conducted the first London performance, on 9 June, this time with The Bach Choir, of which he was then Musical Director. It is one of Vaughan Williams’s most original works in its concept and is his only choral work to be designated ‘oratorio’. His use of choral forces is bold and striking as he exploits the colours of a full chorus, a semi-chorus and a distant chorus which is ideally to be
invisible and comprise boys’ voices; performing alongside this group is a lone trumpeter.
In the brief orchestral prelude, Vaughan Williams deftly evokes a sense of the numinous. The baritone begins his narration surrounded by haloes of alleluias; from afar the distant chorus, always prefaced by trumpet, joins in the paen. Gradually the music rises to a climax as the omnipotence of God is proclaimed.
With a blazing trumpet fanfare, Heaven is revealed, and to vivid, fast music, the rider on a white horse, poised to wreak havoc on the transgressors, is portrayed. At the ensuing climax the name of the rider, ‘King of Kings’ is announced. To an urgent falling string phrase and pounding timpani, the angel standing in the sun musters the armies of the heavenly host for the conflict. Battle is enjoined and the kings of the earth and their armies are destroyed to dramatic wails of ‘slain’.
An extended elegy for Babylon follows, (the city becoming a symbol of humankind’s dislocation from the Godhead), bound together by the recurring plangent refrain ‘Babylon the great is fallen’. A cor anglais solo brings the lamentations to a close. With a radiant key change to E major a solo violin offers consolation as the evocation of the new heaven and new earth unfolds in rapt music, finally surging to an exultant climax on the word
‘ever’, before the violin fades away.
The distant choir intone ‘Holy, Holy’, before a hymn of praise breaks out culminating in an orchestral explosion of sonorous brass and crashing cymbals. But finally, in an inspired compositional master-stroke, it is the tenor soloist, making his sole appearance, who affirms in his floating, poignant melody the new covenant between God and humanity who murmur in hushed pleading ‘even so come Lord’ as the vision fades.
Dona nobis pacem is both a prayer and a warning. On a universal level the cantata is a prayer that mankind will mature to discard warfare and strife; in the particular context of its time, it is a warning that the unstable political situation of the 1930s was sliding disastrously towards another war. Because it is the prayer that is uppermost in the work’s dynamic, Vaughan Williams does not allude to specific contemporary events, but the message is clear; all the more so by the universality of the texts, setting a fragment of the Latin Mass, Walt Whitman, John Bright and conflations from the Bible.
The choice of texts is typical of Vaughan Williams: Whitman the poet so admired by his generation for his freedom of thought and form; the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible, part and parcel of anyone born into the Anglican tradition at that time; and lastly, John Bright, reflecting the liberal, radical background of his Wedgwood and Darwin ancestors. The cantata, cast in five movements, was composed in 1936 to a commission from the Huddersfield Choral Society and was first performed at their centenary concert on 2 October 1936; Albert Coates was the conductor; Renée Flynn and Roy Henderson, the soloists.
From the outset the music of the Agnus Dei creates a mood suggestive of the imminence of an unknown danger. This is created by the briefest of orchestral preludes, a unison D becoming a chord where the semitone clash of C sharp/D is the telling root of the tension. The soprano takes up the interval on the word ‘Dona’, and as such it becomes symbolic throughout the work of mankind’s plea for peace. Chorus and soprano intone the prayer alternatively
quietly and in desperate outbursts of near despair. The movement closes with the soprano’s semitonal ‘pacem’ pleas sullied by the realities of the approach of war as hinted at by the percussion.
In the second movement, the ‘drums’ and ‘bugles’ of Whitman’s lines from Drumtaps find their equivalent in
music as the conflict breaks out. The effect of war on the community and the common man is the subject. All other considerations are swept aside; war dominates. In death, peace is found between enemies. As the baritone sings the opening line of Whitman’s Reconciliation, for the first time in the cantata there is a glimpse of a world free from strife. In the meantime the scars of war are healed in a mood of serenity. At the close the soprano appropriately reiterates her plea ‘Dona nobis pacem’, but now with a poignant minor third to complete her phrase.
The honouring of the dead of battle, the ritualistic burial of heroes now takes the foreground in this magnificent setting of Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans. It dates back to 1908 but the composer, sensing that it belonged within the context of a larger piece, set it aside until it found its natural place in this work nearly thirty years later. Slow military tattoos and the tread of the dead march portray the processional to the grave. The movement’s noble hymn-like melodies are a reminder of Vaughan Williams’s twin affinity with the Anglican tradition and folk-song. Notable musical imagery includes the alliterative ‘dropped’ as the veterans fall one after the other.
The first part of the final movement reaches the nadir of bleakness; there is no respite from the Angel of Death despite a further desperate outcry for peace. Jeremiah’s words of anguish become all the more poignant being set as a canon between the men’s and the women’s voices, as though they are utterly trapped in a situation from which there is no escape. With a change of key to D flat major, however, the nodal point of the work is reached and a new
mood ushered in by the baritone’s message of hope. The chorus takes up the vision of a world without strife and at the end the soprano’s prayer has attained concord with no hint of semitonal angst. During the final chorus both the music itself and the orchestration clearly suggest the pealing of bells. Surely these are the bells of the English churches?, the bells that soon would be silenced for several years, but which would ring out jubilantly, as in the music
here, on 8 May 1945.
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