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Dona nobis pacem became a somewhat unexpected hit for Vaughan Williams. A fervently anti-war plea from the heart composed in 1936 as a pièce d’occasion for the Huddersfield Choral Society, it remains to this day one of the composer’s most widely performed works. Coupled with it here is the first recording of Stephen Hough’s Missa Mirabilis (the title derives from an unfortunate motorway incident), a work which shares with the Vaughan Williams an ability to seem very much greater than the sum of its parts. Andrew Litton directs the Colorado Symphony and all-star soloists Sarah Fox and Christopher Maltman.
The words are selected from a variety of sources, principally from the scriptures and Whitman. The interpolation of the one into the other pre-echoes Britten’s scheme in his War Requiem of twenty-five years later. Skilfully though the libretto is compiled, Dona nobis pacem cannot be said to be a unified musical conception, but the sheer quality of the music has ensured that it has outlived the occasion for which it was written and, alas, the subject grows no less topical.
The cantata is in five main sections:
Agnus Dei (Lento): After two bars of orchestral chromatic chords, the soprano enters pianissimo with the Latin prayer from the Liturgy, her ‘Dona nobis pacem’, the work’s principal leitmotif, thrice repeated. The chorus echoes this plea for peace and then, in a sudden discordant outburst, the soloist and chorus cry it to the heavens. As this climax subsides, the drums begin beating and the music flows without a break into the second section.
Beat! beat! drums! (Allegro moderato): Trumpet calls over beating drums are a prelude to the chorus’s words from Whitman’s Drum-Taps, a declamatory description of the overwhelming effects of war on town and countryside. Short, harsh, ejaculatory phrases convey the ruthlessness of war.
Reconciliation (Andantino): The stridency of the previous section is banished by strings high in their register and the musings of a solo violin, in a serene slow movement typical of Vaughan Williams. The words are again from Drum-Taps and are given to the baritone soloist with his message of ultimate reconciliation sung to music of notable compassion. This section is repeated by the chorus, after which the soloist continues with the passage ‘For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead’. This again foreshadows Britten’s use of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting in the War Requiem. The chorus repeats the first section and the soprano quietly interjects her prayerful ‘Dona nobis pacem’ to close the movement.
Dirge for two veterans (Moderato alla marcia): Over a steady drum rhythm a solemn march-tune introduces the Whitman word-picture of the burial by moonlight of a father and son who have been killed in battle. The chorus sings this movement, setting the scene with a description of the rising of the moon and the arrival of the cortège at the double grave. The march is thundered out in C major, the chorus silent. The vocal writing now becomes modal before the intense climax and quiet ending. This movement’s melodic directness is apposite to the directness of the message of this work and, without knowing it, one would not guess the music’s earlier date.
The Angel of Death has been abroad: To a sparse accompaniment, the baritone declaims John Bright’s words about the Angel of Death, spoken in the House of Commons in 1855 in a debate on the Crimean War. The soprano soloist and chorus renew their anguished cry for peace, the chorus following this with man’s perennial despairing question ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’. Vaughan Williams suggests that there is, for the baritone sings an assurance of peace. Now the orchestra begins to glow radiantly with a beautiful passacaglia-like melody, as the chorus sings of nations at peace with one another. As this vision intensifies, the vocal and orchestral writing become contrapuntal in texture and the bells begin to peal. To the passacaglia-tune a new heaven and a new earth are invoked and finally the Christmas message of peace and good-will toward men. The last three words are reiterated emphatically, followed by a coda in which the chorus reaffirms the soprano’s final entreaty, ‘Dona nobis pacem’, so bringing the cantata to a quiet and peaceful ending in a final impression of optimism.
I was delighted when Martin Baker asked me if I would like to write a Mass for Westminster Cathedral because I had had one in mind for a while, and this commission encouraged me to get down to work. As I wrote it, and after hearing the first performance, I knew I wanted eventually to reshape it into a work for a large chorus and a large orchestra. A commission from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was the catalyst for this second incarnation.
The central idea, and the central movement, is the Credo—in some ways the most problematic text to set because of its length and the non-poetic nature of the words. But instead of setting the words simply in a descriptive way, I wanted to explore aspects of the psychology which underlies the whole nature of belief and doubt. The Creed contains line after line of densely packed, carefully articulated theology—as watertight and restrictive as Nicea could make it. But I, like most Catholics, have said these words quickly, without thinking fully of the depth (or daring) of what is being expressed. And what does ‘believing’ in these pregnant clauses actually mean? When I stand and affirm that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’ what am I saying? And what about those who have ceased to believe and yet still rattle off blithely the bold print in the Missal after the sermon and before the offertory?
In my setting of the Credo I divide the upper from the lower voices as if innocence from experience. Only the sopranos and altos sing the word ‘Credo’, constantly interrupting the fast-paced mutterings of the tenors and basses. What at first is an encouragement to believe becomes a despairing cry as the men’s pattered rote turns into defiant unbelief. Only the clause about baptism is sung with any sense of faith—a last hope dashed as the final clauses about resurrection and eternal life fizzle out. A final ‘Credo’ is sung an octave lower by the upper voices—quietly, as if tired and shattered from their earlier, futile exertion.
The whole work opens with a brief, muted, unsettled chorale in the four horns (which we will later hear as the blazing series of chords punctuating the statements of the Credo). This moment of doubt lasts only for seconds and melts into the Kyrie proper, sung to music of sweet, simple consolation. The Gloria is joyful in its outer sections, based on an organ rising scale and a choral falling zigzag motif. In the central ‘Qui tollis’ section the zigzag motif pipes away in the piccolos’ repeated high chords, and the chorus now sings the rising scales. There are a few prophetic hints of the Credo here and there, in the ‘miserere nobis’ for example.
The Sanctus and Benedictus aim to contrast the divine and the human. The angels’ ‘Holy, holy, holy’ is something beyond the universe itself in grandeur and scope, and the music here is huge, broad, immense. In the Benedictus, Divinity has become Humanity in the Messianic incarnation, and the music is deliberately and sentimentally intimate—as if two people are sharing a drink in a Parisian café, with a whiff of Poulenc perhaps in the harmonies, or maybe even the sound of a distant 1950s pop tune coming from a neighbouring café’s jukebox.
The Agnus Dei takes the ‘Credo’ motif, sung by the upper voices, and develops it in a plaintive sequence. All is restrained and quietly expressive until the third, louder statement of the text, where the response should be ‘Grant us peace’. Instead of ‘peace’ the orchestra plays an interlude of mounting agitation and desperation based on chromatically altered fragments of the opening vocal chords. As this passage reaches its highpoint, with still no sign of ‘Dona nobis pacem’, the chorus sings a fortissimo ‘Agnus Dei’ to the music which had accompanied the baptism clause in the Credo. Finally, as a climax to the whole work, the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is sung at highest volume and highest pitch—a variation of the descending scale first heard in the ‘Christe eleison’. The spell has been broken, all gradually becomes calm, and the piece ends musically as it began with the ‘Dona nobis’ sharing the same melody of consolation as the Kyrie, despite a fleeting fragment of the unsettled horn chorale from the work’s opening bars.
And why ‘Mirabilis’? Purely personal: I gathered my year’s-worth of sketches for this Mass together in September 2006 and wrote three of the movements in three days; the following day I had a serious car crash, overturning on the motorway at 80 mph; I stepped out of the one untouched door in my completely mangled car with my Mass manuscript and my body intact; I wrote part of the Agnus Dei in St Mary’s Hospital, waiting for four hours for a brain scan. I was conscious, as I was somersaulting with screeching metallic acrobatics on the M1, of feeling regret that I would never get to hear this piece. Someone had other ideas.
Hyperion Records Ltd © 2015