By Melodious Monk
This week, we are preparing to perform Vaughn Williams beautiful and heart-wrenching work, Dona Nobis Pacem. Using Walt Whitman poetry as the primary source of text, Vaughn Williams wrote the work just before WWII as an outcry begging the world not to enter another world war. The piece takes the listener on a journey through all sorts of human emotions about life and war. There’s an outcry for peace, followed by a ruthless depiction of the sheer horror and un-humanness of war. Next comes a beautiful portrayal of the hope of reconciliation, followed by a martial and respectful, but sorrow-filled movement titled Dirge for Two Veterans. In the fifth movement the ensemble reaches its height of anguish, crying out to the heavens asking why? Why all this death, turmoil and suffering? Echoing the prophets of the Old and New Testament, the work closes with a triumphal hymn reassuring us that God will have the last word. The work is set down quietly with one last plea for peace.
In the fourth movement in particular, Vaughn Williams is juxtaposing the inexplicable horror and gut-wrenching sadness of war with the dignity and respect of human life. The music sounds triumphant and victorious as the poetry is depicting a tragic scene of a father and son killed together on the front lines.
It’s the same 2 measures in this movement that put a lump in my throat every-time we sing them. The poet has just explained that he can see and hear a sad funeral procession approaching. As it arrives the listener is quickly swept from seeing a sad procession into the grandest and noblest British-sounding march with all the pomp and circumstance the orchestra, organ and choir can muster. It is a triumphal and victorious moment, thrust in among deep anguish. I know this moment is coming in the work, but each time I’m caught by surprise in the sweep of majesty and glory. Vaughn Williams captures this essence. As the created beings in God’s image, we need to be reminded that all human life deserves the utmost respect.