Dona Nobis Pacem (some late Memorial Day thoughts)

Beat! beat! drums! — blow! bugles! blow! / Through the windows — through doors — burst like a ruthless force… (Walt Whitman, “Beat! Beat! Drums!”; Dona Nobis Pacem, second movement)

In 1937, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Dona Nobis Pacem. The piece emerged from his feelings on the rising tide of Fascism and Naziism in Europe in the late 1930’s as well as his experiences as an ambulance driver and artillery officer in the First World War. The title of the piece means “grant us peace,” and it is a compelling musical journey that borrows texts from the Bible, Walt Whitman (“Beat! Beat! Drums!”, “Reconciliation,” and “A Dirge for Two Veterans”) and John Bright’s famous “Angel of Death” speech, and which runs the gamut of musical colors and emotions–from the frenetic representation of war in the second movement to the weary calm of the third movement to the somber death march of the fourth movement to the despair and emptiness of the fifth movement and to the eventual joy and hope of the final, sixth movement.

For my enemy is dead–a man divine as myself is dead… (Walt Whitman, “Reconciliation”; Dona Nobis Pacem, third movement)

This past Memorial Day weekend, my choir went to New York and performed Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem in Carnegie Hall. It was one of the most moving musical experiences (for that matter, one of the most moving experiences, musical or otherwise) in my life. Many of us had grown to love the piece when we sang it last year during our regular concert season, and we grew to love it all over again. The timing, both this year and last, has seemed so pertinent, and though I must remind myself that the events of last few years are not unique in the history of the world, the piece has really resonated with where I’ve been both politically and spiritually. Before we went onto the stage at Carnegie, our conductor related how earlier in the day he had gone to ground zero at the World Trade Center site, and afterwards had stopped by the chapel only a few blocks away where many of the families went after the disaster on September 11th. While there, he had run into two members of our choir, one of whom had reflected, “this is why we are performing this piece.” This statement struck a chord with the entire choir, and after spending time conversing with many of the people who performed this past weekend, I know that most of us were not standing on that stage thinking about our cut-offs and our consonants. Instead, on our mind was the thought, “I must communicate to this audience the beautiful message of peace contained within this musical work.”

…Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the voice of the daughters of my people recovered? (Jeremiah 8:22; Dona Nobis Pacem, fifth movement)

I grow so tired of of what we, as human beings, do to one another in the name of justice, God, patriotism, etc. Though I am not a pacifist and I honor the courage of those in the armed forces, the neverending tide of fighting and the neverending justifications for fighting saddens me immensely. I often visit the empty despair of the fifth movement, taken from the 8th chapter of Jeremiah, and wonder when all the horrible death and war that is part of mortality will end. But sometimes, I remember the wonderful promises of the Savior’s atonement, which are reflected in the final movement of Dona Nobis Pacem: that eventually war will end, and “nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Micah 4:3; Dona Nobis Pacem, sixth movement). When I was singing this past weekend, I felt a small portion of that joy and hope as we sang the final movement. My heart rejoiced in the belief that one day all the current war and death and destruction will come to an end, and that we will truly recognize the divinity of our both our sisters and our enemies.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14; Dona nobis pacem, sixth movement)

Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.


  1. Thanks, s, for this post. I’m not familiar with that piece, but you’ve motivated me to seek it out. I love Vaughan Williams’ other works that I know.

    You’ve made me wish yet again that I were a decent singer instead of being forever relegated to instrumental music.

  2. Thanks, Eve. You definitely should seek out this piece. It’s definitely one of my favorites that I’ve performed. Part of it is the circumstances of singing it with this choir, but it is a wonderful piece of music with a beautiful message.

    (And hey, we need the instrumentalists too. The orchestra’s march in the middle of the fourth music is one of my favorite moments in this piece!)

  3. I was trying to remember why the phrase “Dona Nobis Pacem” was familiar to me, and I finally remembered that it shows up on a MASH episode. (And of course most of my knowledge of the world comes from either MASH or Trivial Pursuit.)

    Thanks for the post; it sounds like it was an incredible experience.


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