Orchestra Seattle | Seattle Chamber Singers
George Shangrow, music director
PO Box 15825
Seattle, WA 98115


Dona nobis pacem

Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Vaughan Williams was born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England, and died August 26, 1958, in London. His cantata Dona nobis pacem was written in 1936 on a commission from the Huddersfield Choral Society, who gave the premiere on October 2, 1936 with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates; the fourth movement actually dates from 1916, but had not been publicly performed until its inclusion in this cantata. In addition to soprano and baritone soloists and chorus, the work is scored for 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, tenor drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, bells, harp, (optional) organ and strings.

English composers have always shown a special affinity for setting the text of American poet Walt Whitman. Ralph Vaughan Williams was certainly no exception, as evidenced by his Sea Symphony and this Dona nobis pacem, a cantata he composed for the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society. Something of a precursor to Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, the Dona nobis pacem presented an appeal for peace when war was looming on England's horizon.

The cantata is in six movements, played without pause. In the brief opening section the solo soprano pleads "Dona nobis pacem" ("Grant us peace")a cry that will be repeated at regular intervals throughout the work. In the second movement, a selection from Whitman's Drum Taps provides the text for a ruthless call to arms. By contrast the "Reconciliation" that follows is a beautiful, heart-wrenching depiction of the impact of war on the individual. Next comes the elegiac "Dirge for Two Veterans," which had actually been composed by Vaughan Williams a quarter century earlier but had never been published or performed before its incorporation into this work. A transitional passage follows, in which the solo baritone recalls John Bright's famous "Angel of Death" speech before moving to a wide-ranging sequence of Biblical quotations. The closing pages of the work are dominated by an optimistic plea for peace and the cantata ends quietly with the soprano returning for a final "Dona nobis pacem" supported by a cappella chorus.

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