Worship Through Music | A Cry for Peace: Dona Nobis Pacem

A Cry for Peace: Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Music has always been an important part of Christian worship, and on June 9 we’ll get to explore the power of music in a unique way in each of our services. George Hinman, our senior pastor, is taking us through a sermon series based on the book of Romans, and on June 9, the topic is “The Prayer of Peace.” The scripture passage aligned with that day is Romans 8:18-30 and the focus is on yearning and groaning in prayer. Consider these excerpts (the emphases are mine):

Romans 8:18-19 “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”

Romans 8: 22-27 “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

Each of our services on June 9 will be uniquely designed to help us to interact with this passage and its implications and will be different from our usual services in several ways. The music will, for the most part, take the place of the sermon. Pastor George will give a short homily that will highlight the Romans passage and give context to the music and the texts that go with it. In the three morning services (8:30, 10:00, and 11:45), the bulk of the music will be a cantata for choir, two soloists, and orchestra by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) entitled Dona Nobis Pacem. The title is Latin and can be translated “Grant us Peace.” Although it bears a Latin title, the text of the work is primarily in English and is easily understood. The 5:00 pm service will retain its usual worship-band-led format but will use extended music to lead us to grapple with these texts and to worship our all-sufficient God.

Vaughan Williams completed Dona nobis pacem in 1936. The piece lasts about 35 minutes and uses texts from such varied sources as the Roman liturgy, American poet Walt Whitman, the Bible, and a speech by British parliamentarian John Bright, to lament the horrors of war, and to encourage its hearers with the promise of peace.

We present this music as an act of worship – as a prayer for the peace that God has promised will one day take the place of all earthly conflict. Although when he wrote it Vaughan Williams likely had Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia in mind, in retrospect the cantata becomes eerily prophetic of the much larger Second World War. I liken this piece to a good story. It takes us through the conflict first, so we can appreciate even more the joy and resolution at the end. The emotional range is not unlike going through Good Friday and Easter. We certainly don’t want to focus on the darkness for its own sake, but only as it shows creation’s yearning for redemption, and heightens our gratitude for God’s shalom which will ultimately replace all war and all strife. 

The work is divided into six sections or movements, but each segues into the next, creating one continuous piece. The music begins with the soprano voicing the ancient liturgical prayer, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.” The choir joins, crying out with impassioned pleas of “Dona nobis pacem” (“grant us peace”).

The second movement is heralded by the echo of drums and bugles, and Whitman’s text ushers us, unwilling, into the midst of war, which will “burst like a ruthless force” into every avenue of life. The macabre march expresses the helplessness of those caught in a country in conflict, and speaks of war that will rush:

Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet, no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field, or gathering in his grain.

The third movement, “Reconciliation,” provides the first glimmer of hope that “war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost.” The beautiful baritone melody and the lush choral and orchestral harmonies paint a picture of the soiled earth being washed clean of its impurities. In movement four, “Dirge for Two Veterans, martial drumbeats accompany Walt Whitman’s Civil-War-era lament over a father and son, killed together on the front line.

Perhaps the most chilling text of Dona nobis pacem comes at the beginning of the fifth movement:

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one as of old…to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on.

This reference to the tenth plague of Egypt and the Jewish Passover comes from a speech delivered by John Bright in the British House of Commons during the Crimean War (1854-56). Vaughan Williams sets the text in a recitative (speech-like) fashion, then follows it with a repeat of the choir’s cry of “Dona nobis pacem” from the first movement.

Despite the apparent despair of some of the early movements, the work ends with joyful triumph and hope. Vaughan Williams compiled prophetic texts from several passages of the Bible to build up to a celebration of the ultimate victory of God’s peace over all conflict:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.”

This sentence, recorded in Luke 2:14, is declared by the angels celebrating the birth of Jesus and it points to the fact that God’s peace comes only through Jesus Christ. The music is joyful and exuberant, but it feels all the more so because of the yearning nature of the music that comes before it.

Finally, quietly, the soprano soloist ends as she began the work, singing “Dona nobis pacem.” This prayer brings us back to our present day; a time when peace is a future promise, but not a present reality.  

As our church continues to focus on “Next Door,” this event is a perfect opportunity to invite your neighbors to come to a service that will be refreshingly different from a typical church service. Seattle has a vibrant arts community and an unusually large number of excellent community choral groups. If you have friends who enjoy attending the Seattle Symphony, choral concerts, and similar events, these morning services will be right up their alley. For those for whom this kind of music is less familiar, I hope these notes can serve as a guide to letting this musical experience lead you into deep worship of Jesus, “For he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14-22).