Dona Nobis Pacem: Six Musical Invocations of Peace


The phrase Dona nobis pacem (“Grant us Peace”) comes from the Agnus Dei section of the Roman Catholic mass. It’s a simple, yet eternally powerful, invocation which has come to life in countless musical settings, from the serene simplicity of the traditional canon to the melodic perfection of Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E-flat MajorAt the end of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Massit emerges as a triumphant celebration. In the twentieth century, it becomes a joyfully exuberant dance in Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis and a mysterious, meditative prayer in this 1996 setting by Estonian composer Peteris Vasks.

Here are six additional musical invocations of peace:

Bach’s Mass in B minor

J.S. Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor concludes with this powerful setting of Dona nobis pacem. Bach’s music transcends the quiet, meditative prayer we might expect. Instead, it’s a soaring, almost defiant musical statement. As it develops, reaching increasingly higher, we hear a single musical subject appear in one voice and then another. This persistent musical line seems to be communicating a message which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

Dona nobis pacem appears in the final movement of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. In the score Beethoven wrote the words, “Prayer for inner and outer peace.” In the spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (written a year after the completion of Missa Solemnis), this is music which seems to be trying to wrap its arms around the universe. You’ll hear sudden, earth-shattering changes of direction and the occasional martial sounds of drums and bugles. This excerpt gives us a sense of Missa Solemnis’ vast, cathedral-like musical architecture; but as the work nears an end, it melts into something more intimate and contemplative. (Listen to the joyful, sparkling string and woodwind lines and the quietly contented passages which follow here).

Venus, the Bringer of Peace

Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets begins with Mars, the Bringer of Wara demonic, mechanical march locked into the irregular meter of 5/4 time. But the movement which follows evokes the serene peace of Venus. Opening with a solo horn line, Venus, the Bringer of Peace draws us into its colorful, placid, almost static world. As the movement ends, a momentary hint of something dark and ominous gives way to sparkling bells and innocent woodwind voices.

Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata, Dona nobis pacem was written in 1936 as a new World War loomed on the horizon. Its text alternates between the traditional Roman Catholic Mass and other biblical excerpts and poems of Walt Whitman: Beat! Beat! Drums!, Reconciliation (below), and Dirge for Two Veterans. 

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again

and ever again, this soiled world;

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

At moments, Vaughan Williams’ music suggests the trumpet calls and drums of battle. A solemn, numb funeral dirge trudges on. Half way through, the words, “Dona nobis pacem” become an ear-splitting shriek of pain. But throughout the cantata, we also hear exuberant splashes of color and some of the most lushly beautiful music imaginable…the sonic equivalent of England’s “green and pleasant” countryside.

(Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem ends at the 33:30 mark, below).

Honegger’s Symphonie Liturgique

Written in the aftermath of the Second World War, Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphonie Liturgique” can be heard as a wordless mass. Here is the final movement, which concludes with a reference to Dona nobis pacem. At moments, the music suggests the roaring steam of Honegger’s locomotive-inspired Pacific 231In its final moments, as earlier conflict fades, the music enters a colorful and mysterious new world, seeming to fade into eternity:

Fauré’s Requiem

And what better way to finish than with the sparkling, childlike innocence of In paradisum, the final movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem:

[unordered_list style=”tick”]

  • Find Robert Shaw’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Gustav Holst’s The Planets at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Arthur Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphonie Liturgique” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem at iTunes, Amazon.


Pastorale d’été

summer pastureJ’ai embrassé l’aube d’été. (I have embraced the summer dawn).

This epigraph by French poet Arthur Rimbaud is inscribed in the score of Arthur Honegger’s atmospheric tone poem, Pastorale d’été (Summer Pastorale). The piece is like a musical painting. It doesn’t evoke literal images, but instead feelings and loose associations. The natural world awakens amid the powerful inevitability of dawn. The soul of nature speaks through the music. Consider the distinct personas of the solo instruments, from the opening horn to the oboe with its pastoral associations. As the music progresses, you may hear a fleeting hint of jazz and the blues, sounds which were in the air in Paris around this time.

Honegger wrote Pastorale d’été in the summer of 1920, while vacationing in the Swiss Alps. Here it is played by the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Jesús López-Cobos:

Find on iTunes

Different Trains

Steam locomotive running gear

One of my fondest early childhood memories was visiting the Arcade and Attica Railroad for a summer afternoon train ride. Nestled in the rolling Western New York countryside east of Buffalo, it’s one of a handful of places where visitors can get up close and personal with a steam locomotive. Beyond the soot and flying cinders, the sound of a steam engine may be the most memorable aspect of the experience. It huffs, puffs and breaths as if it’s alive. It laboriously chugs up a hill with a persistent rhythm. If you’ve never been close to a steam engine these clips from Arcade, Stockton, California and the Railroad Museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania will give you some idea.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Pacific 231[/typography]

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) found musical inspiration in the steam locomotive. Honegger wrote Pacific 231 partly as a musical experiment. His goal was to create music which gave the impression of increasing rhythmic momentum and a simultaneous slowing of tempo. Here is how Honegger described the music:

[quote]I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living beings whom I love as others love women or horses. What I sought to achieve in Pacific 231 was not the imitation of the noises of the locomotive but rather the translation of a visual impression and of the physical enjoyment through a musical construction. It opens with an objective observation, the calm respiration of the machine at rest, the effort of the start, a gradual increase in speed, ultimately attaining the lyrical stage, the pathos of a train 300 tons in weight launched in the dark of night at 120 kilometers an hour. For my subject I selected a locomotive of the Pacific type, bearing the number 231.[/quote]

Listen to Pacific 231 and enjoy the sense of motion and raw energy. Can you feel the pressure building in the opening? Can you hear the train gaining speed, working to get up a hill, slowing at the end of the trip and ultimately finding a final rest?

[button link=”″]Find on iTunes[/button] [button link=””]Find on Amazon[/button]

Music is all around us-even in our machines. In the eighteenth century composers were influenced by brooks, pastures and birdsongs. By the industrial twentieth century the world had become louder and more dissonant. What kind of music is being produced by our increasingly wired, information saturated twenty first century world?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]From Chicago to New York[/typography]

Growing up during World War II, Steve Reich (b. 1936) frequently traveled by train between New York and Los Angeles to visit his separated parents. A Jewish American, Reich later realized that European Jews were riding trains to concentration camps during the same years. This realization was the inspiration for Different Trains, written in 1988 for string quartet and tape. Reich constructed the piece around fragments of recorded voices. For the first movement, Reich recorded his former governess and a long retired railway porter reminiscing about the trains of the 1930’s and 40’s. In the second and third movements we hear the voices of Holocaust survivors. Here is a clip of Reich talking about Different Trains.

Listen to the first movement, America-Before the War, performed by the Kronos Quartet. How does the music unfold? Is the motion fast or slow? Can you sense the recorded speech developing in any way? Do you hear anything “musical” or expressive in the voices?

[button link=”″]Find on iTunes[/button] [button link=””]Find on Amazon[/button]

When I listen to this music I notice that I have a heightened sense of awareness of the moment. I find myself  becoming one with the sound. Repeated musical phrases take on a unique power. While Different Trains has a fairly fast pulse, it evolves slowly. Did the music change your perception of time? Did we just turn up the volume on something that has always been there and will continue into infinity? You probably noticed a gradual additive process in the recorded voices. As each fragment is repeated and enlarged, more musical “space” is taken up. The instruments imitate the pitch inflection of each spoken fragment.

Something was in the air in the 1960’s which led Steve Reich, Philip Glass and others to begin writing repetitive, circular music. This new direction in music, known as Minimalism, was partly a reaction to the complexity of atonal or 12-tone music. A similar movement occurred in the art world slightly earlier. Think about the endlessly repeating chorus of your favorite Pop song-anything from Disco and Techno to Phil Collins or Joe Jackson. How are these songs similar in flow to the Minimalism of Steve Reich?

[quote]Time is a train…Makes the future the past…Leaves you standing in the station…Your face pressed up against the glass -U2[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Zoo Station[/typography]

Zoo Station is the opening track of U2’s 1991 album, Achtung Baby. The song was inspired by Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten railway station and Europe at a crossroads in the early 1990’s following the fall of the Iron Curtain. After a night of Allied bombing damaged Berlin’s zoo during World War II, animals were found wandering freely in the streets amid the rubble. Bono viewed this story as a metaphor for Eastern Europe’s liberation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With this album U2 went in a new direction, using recording techniques such as distortion in the drums and vocals. Interestingly, you may be reminded of the additive process of Steve Reich (the opening of the song and around 2:44):

[button link=”″]Find on iTunes[/button] [button link=”″]Find on Amazon[/button]