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The exchange between RVW and Merrick may seem little more than a footnote to the history of Dona nobis pacem, the cantata from which this phrase is taken, yet the appropriation of the lilting fragment by the Musicians' Organisation for Peace tells us something important about RVW’s principles, intentions, and popular allure. Composed in 1936 to mark the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society, Dona nobis pacem has often been thought to have exceeded the terms of its commission, garnering admiration for the ways in which it sets its sights further afield, and thereby prompts listeners to regard it as ‘a commentary on the state of Europe’. Attractive though it may be to think of the cantata in these terms—as a piece of musical ‘propaganda’, or, in one recent account, as ‘a manifesto for world peace’—RVW’s response in 1952 to ‘simple minded’ pacifists should encourage us to return to his work in the mid-1930s, and to think again about its motivation as a form of political testimony.
For rather than opting to enlist material from the English literary tradition, as Benjamin Britten would in the case of The War Requiem some twenty-five years later, RVW strove in 1936 to piece together a choral work that would speak in curiously distant ways to the matter of peacemaking. After all, he too might have taken up the poetry of Wilfred Owen, or indeed followed the example of Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da Camera (1924), which had incorporated texts by Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, and Wilfrid Gibson, each of them alert to the ethical problems of writing pastoral verse in the light of regime change and military upheaval. Instead, RVW elected to borrow the words of a New Yorker—Walt Whitman (1819-92)—whose poetry had long tantalised and tested him, trying the limits of his taste, both as a reader and as a song-writer. Whitman, he once remarked, ‘“was too fond of the smell of his own armpits”’—a sniffy bit of criticism, to be sure, but one that also demonstrates an intimacy with the very curves and crevices of the poet’s work. A letter to Gustav Holst in 1898 reveals an early, playful fascination with the American’s style, and in the years leading up to the First World War, RVW had applied himself seriously to the task of setting portions of Whitman’s lifework, Leaves of Grass (1855-92), culminating in 1909 with the completion of A Sea Symphony. In a lecture of 1912, RVW had been swift to acknowledge the poet’s ‘cosmopolitan’ appeal, but it is clear from such accounts that he had come to see Whitman as a model folklorist, first and foremost, precisely because he’d reaped his ‘inspiration’ from the soil beneath his feet, and not from the ‘incompatible conditions’ of a ‘foreign culture’.
It is all the more surprising, then, that Whitman remained such an important figure for RVW, who could see no hypocrisy at all in his wanting to transplant the poet’s lyrics. He carried with him a volume of Leaves of Grass as he went about his duties as a stretcher-bearer in the war, no doubt alive to the fact that he was following vicariously in Whitman’s footsteps. As a volunteer nurse in the American Civil War (1861-65), Whitman too had witnessed the stark, scattered effects of modern artillery, and had written about them at length in a series of poems called Drum-Taps (later to be included in an expanded version of Leaves of Grass). One of these poems, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, had set RVW sketching before the outbreak of war in Europe, and it is easy to guess what piqued his curiosity. Extending to nine four-line stanzas, the poem tells a familiar story—the passing of a funeral party, the sounding of bugles and drums—yet there is a strangeness about these proceedings, and it has something to do with the ‘new-made double grave’ that opens like a wound at the end of the first verse. In time, we learn that the grave has been dug to accommodate blood relations—‘two veterans, son and father, dropped together’—and in the wake of that twofold bereavement, the witness to this burial allows himself to be carried away by the ‘immense’ procession. This is a poem, oddly, that purports to rejoice in the rhythms and phantom rhymes of the dirge, and to wax lyrical about the ways a procession of this sort ‘enwraps’ and seems to ‘please’ those who live to fight another day.
By returning to this ghoulish piece in 1936, RVW began to compose a cantata that would appear, crucially, to be in two minds about the struggle for peace. We sense this mood of indecision too in the settings of Whitman that precede the ‘Dirge’, first in the manic call to arms of ‘Beat! beat! drums!’, and then, more sweetly, but no less irresistibly, in ‘Reconciliation’. In this short, confessional poem—written shortly after the Civil War—Whitman finds himself at once preoccupied and elated by the spectacle of an enemy corpse. He gazes lovingly upon the ‘white face’, and feels inclined to ‘touch lightly’, not with his hands, but with his ‘lips’, rather, in a necrophiliac gesture that bespeaks a chilling kind of intimacy. RVW’s setting gives nothing away, and simply allows the baritone soloist to hover uncertainly in the moment of his stolen kiss, sensitive perhaps to the reality that this ‘reconciliation’ is nothing more or less than wish-fulfilment. Dona nobis pacem is a work that subtly dramatizes the acts of joining and dividing forces—chorus and orchestra, percussion and strings—yet it is one that also allows for the possibility of hushed soliloquy: occasionally, as in ‘Reconciliation’, voices seem to strike out alone, as though encouraged to explore on their own terms the limits of expression and the thrill of melodic singularity. It would be easy to overlook, even to pardon, these flights of fancy; and indeed, the sixth and final part of the cantata may well be the movement RVW expected listeners to take to heart, with its festive turn, fanfares, and renewed attempt to interweave biblical lesson and aphorism. This, of course, was the finale that appealed to the sensibilities of the Musicians' Organisation for Peace in 1952. And yet, when all is said and done—and sung—it will be clear that there are no greeting-card conclusions, or ‘simple minded’ mottos, to be drawn from this fitful work. A fair hearing of the cantata, on the contrary, might account for its lingering interest in the grim and sensual aspects of combat. Only then, perhaps, could we reasonably say that Dona nobis pacem is greater than the sum of its parts.
from notes by Edward Allen © 2017
I should write at this point that another important contributor to the project overall was Amos Paran, whose academic knowledge of biblical Hebrew and experience as a choral singer brought valuable insights to the Choir as it engaged with the texts of the Chichester Psalms. I am immensely grateful to him for his expertise.
Stephen Cleobury © 2017
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