I’ve written two short articles for the Church notice sheet. Space was limited – I could have said more – and I am very much addressing non-specialist readers.
If you listen to Classic FM especially late at night you will regularly hear ‘the lark ascending’, ‘fantasia on greensleeves’, ‘fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis’. All are deemed to be gentle, relaxing and suitable for bedtime listening. Earlier in the day you may hear the more energetic ‘seventeen come Sunday’ from the English Folk Song Suite.
Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 in rural Gloucestershire, son of a vicar. His mother, Margaret, was a great-granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood and niece of Charles Darwin.
War began in 1914 and aged 42 he volunteered and became an ambulance driver. It is believed that like so many he never forgot those experiences of war. They found expression in many pieces including in 1936 ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ which I sang in a workshop last Saturday. The title is the closing words of the Latin Mass and is translated ‘Grant us peace’. Coming only 3 years before the outbreak of the Second World War, the piece is seen as both prescient and a warning. A warning that is valid for us today.
The text combines those words, poetry by Walt Whitman about the American Civil War, words of the Quaker MP John Bright spoken in 1855 in opposition to the Crimean War* and biblical selections concerning the coming of peace and a new heaven. It is a work of beauty and horror. The last section is largely triumphant and although a rollicking good sing I question whether it is a bit forced as to me it does not follow logically and unavoidably from what’s come before. As with the Verdi Requiem the last page brings everything to rest as we and the soprano soloist repeat the words ‘dona nobis pacem’.
For a church notice I must mention that he edited the English Hymnal between 1904 and 1906, writing the tunes Down Ampney for ‘Come down, O Love divine’, Sine nomine for ‘For all the saints’ and for the words ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’ he harmonised a folk tune named Kingsfold after the village in Sussex where he heard it. This tune is also known as ‘Dives and Lazarus’.
In spite of writing music for the church and music with biblical themes, he was described by the second wife as having ‘drifted [from atheism] into a cheerful agnosticism’. He died in 1958 aged 85.
If you wish to explore more of Vaughan Williams, try youtube or spotify and look for ‘A Sea Symphony – words by Walt Whitman again’, ‘Serenade to Music – words by Shakespeare’, ‘Symphony No 5’, ‘Mass in G minor – the influence of Tudor church music again’
* John Bright’s words were “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one, as when the first-born were slain of old, to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on.”