The work was commissioned to mark the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society. Vaughan Williams produced his plea for peace by referring to recent wars during the growing fears of a new one. His texts were taken from the Mass , three poems by Walt Whitman , a political speech, and sections of the Bible. The phrase Dona nobis pacem "Give us peace" , in different settings, punctuates the entire piece.
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By exercising their talents, these men made composing music, for the first time, a fit career for an English gentleman. In an era when many homes had pianofortes and choral societies were widespread across England, the music of the German masters ruled.
Vaughan Williams was convinced that authentic English music should be rooted in folk song. Francis J. In , an invitation to a village tea introduced Vaughan Williams to an old song, by chance, when an old man offered to sing for him.
The song resonated with the idiom that he and Holst were cultivating. The excited Vaughan Williams traveled the English countryside, ultimately collecting over folk songs, which would infuse his own compositions. At the same time, he studied the ancient modes Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian that he found in the folk songs and Tudor polyphony, especially madrigals.
He was delighted to find that many of the folk-song tunes he was unearthing fit to the words of existing hymns. He spent hours studying the scores of Elgar, the first English composer in over years to become internationally famous. Since Elgar was fully booked with students, Vaughan Williams studied orchestration with Ravel in France, where he learned to avoid the heavy Teutonic contrapuntal style and to compose with more lightness and color.
In January , the first German Zeppelin air raid hit England. Vaughan Williams, 42 years old, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps, determined to go to the front immediately rather than wait to be trained and commissioned. The battle raged for months instead of weeks and led to an astounding 1,, British, French, and German soldiers killed and countless wounded. By the end of the war, over 8. How does anyone recover from being in the midst of such carnage and from losing many friends?
Vaughan Williams held to his belief that music was a means to preserve civilization, even amid war. He formed a military chorus and went on to dedicate his life to teaching others to make music. Then, in , he began to move forward again.
His oratorio Sancto Civitas was filled with vision, sadness, and suffering, and the music was ahead of its time in its use of dissonance. Vaughan Williams devoted the years of World War II to helping refugees find shelter and work, providing food by planting huge vegetable gardens and keeping chickens, and helping to stage free lunchtime concerts. His empathy now enfolded a world faced with another war. In answer, distant drums sound, no longer a contagious dance rhythm of centuries past but instead, the harbinger of war.
This movement erupts with articulate fear, depicting a violence that destroys peaceful daily lives. A compassionate world witnesses the scene with one heart, giving love as the moon gives light. In the last movement, Vaughan Williams compiles a number of wise biblical sayings urging communal action for peace.
And whoever said peace is boring compared to war has not heard the final paean to character redeemed in the strength required to lay down arms. Whether Vaughan Williams was inspired by Child might be worth exploring.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem