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Dona nobis pacem

first performed in October 1936
author of text
Movement 1: Ordinary of the Mass; Movement 5: various Old Testament texts
author of text
Movements 2-4
author of text
beginning of Movement 5

Dona nobis pacem is, if you like, ‘propaganda’, an ‘occasional’ piece—if pleas for peace and tolerance and understanding can ever suitably be described as ‘occasional’. No question here but that the motivation was war, or the deepening sense of trouble which by the mid-1930s seemed set to explode into war. Vaughan Williams compiled a text chiefly from the Bible and Whitman (though the work’s motto, and the words of its first movement, belong to the Mass) and Dona nobis pacem was first performed in Huddersfield in October 1936, with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates.

In the event, Vaughan Williams’s warnings and entreaties went unheeded. But the humanitarian warmth and splendour of his vision remains; and, after all, if the day ever dawns when composers fail to speak out through the medium of their art against mankind’s seemingly illimitable folly and wickedness, we shall be in a poor way, to put it mildly.

1) The soprano solo leads the forces of apprehensive humanity (the chorus) in their quest for peace. At the end the drums of war are heard in the far distance.

2) War erupts: nothing and nobody is inviolate. The Whitman setting is dominated by beating drums and blowing bugles, inbuilt in the music even when the text isn’t directly referring to them. In an inspired transition (Vaughan Williams no less than Britten was a master of the seamless scene-change) the drums of war turn into the lapping, laving rhythms of …

3) Reconciliation. The ‘enemy’ is dead—‘a man as divine as myself’, as in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’—and music of transcendent beauty and simplicity warms and cleanses the world.

4) Dirge for Two Veterans. A second drum-study. This time the drums are not of war but of its aftermath—death, and burial. Vaughan Williams based this movement on an earlier setting of the same words made before his mature style had crystallized. This works to his advantage since the music has a kind of rude solidity and strength which a more sophisticated musical language might have mellowed. It would be easy to sentimentalize Whitman here, and this Vaughan Williams resolutely avoids.

5) The ostinato bass which plays out the ‘veterans’ now plays in the Angel of Death. The snorting of Dan’s horses momentarily recalls the apocalyptic equine visions of Sancta Civitas, but these are soon dispelled by one of the work’s most magical moments, the solo baritone’s reassuring ‘O man, greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee’. Chorus basses intone the great text from Micah, almost every word a poem: ‘Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ The word spreads among all instruments and tongues in prospect of a New Jerusalem: bells ring out in a riotous succession of keys and peals, and what better than C major for the Christmas climax: ‘On earth peace, goodwill toward men’? As the sounds of the heavenly host move out of earshot the soprano solo rises from them with a final reiteration of her entreaty: hers alone is the voice that lingers at the end like a solitary ray of hope, a light in the night.

from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1993


Vaughan Williams: Choral Works
CDS44321/44CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem & other works


Movement 1: Agnus Dei
Track 1 on CDA66655 [3'10]
Track 1 on CDS44321/4 CD2 [3'10] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 2: Beat! beat! drums!
Track 2 on CDA66655 [3'44]
Track 2 on CDS44321/4 CD2 [3'44] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 3: Reconciliation  Word over all, beautiful as the sky
Track 3 on CDA66655 [6'34]
Track 3 on CDS44321/4 CD2 [6'34] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 4: Dirge for two veterans  The last sunbeam
Track 4 on CDA66655 [10'45]
Track 4 on CDS44321/4 CD2 [10'45] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 5: The Angel of Death has been abroad
Track 5 on CDA66655 [10'46]
Track 5 on CDS44321/4 CD2 [10'46] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

Track-specific metadata for CDS44321/4 disc 2 track 5

Movement 5: The Angel of Death has been abroad
Recording date
12 June 1993
Recording venue
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem & other works (CDA66655)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: November 1993
  2. Vaughan Williams: Choral Works (CDS44321/4)
    Disc 2 Track 5
    Release date: June 2008
    4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
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