Dona Nobis Pacem: Six Musical Invocations of Peace

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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:

  • 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.

Happy Birthday, Bernard Hoffer

Composer Bernard Hoffer (b. )
Composer Bernard Hoffer (b. 1934)

The Swiss-born American composer Bernard Hoffer turns 81 today.

You may not recognize Hoffer’s name, but chances are good that you’ve heard his music, especially if you’re a longtime viewer of the PBS NewsHour. The NewsHour‘s theme music (originally written in 1975 and, at one point, nominated for an Emmy) has undergone several iterations over the years, but Hoffer’s catchy six-note musical branding logo has remained.

For years, the broadcast opened with that familiar solo trumpet, layered strings rising with exuberance, an emphatic, “no nonsense” resolution, and then a strange, unresolved chord which faded into the headlines, as if to say, “News is never resolved. It’s always about what happens next…” (Listen here). Those rising strings have always reminded me of a vaguely similar passage from the opening of Jupiter, The Bringer of Jolity from Gustav Holst’s 1916 suite, The Planets. (Listen and see if you agree).

Hoffer’s memorable closing music for The NewsHour has the buoyancy, elegance and sense of motion of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Listen carefully to everything that’s happening in this music, from the pizzicato bass line, to the fun rhythmic counter-currents, to the effortless sequence from one key area to another. Not bad for music which is intended to be purely utilitarian and commercial.

Hoffer’s MacNeil/Lehrer Variations liberate this made-for-TV music. The familiar motives are allowed to abandon their assigned roles and freely play and develop. Fittingly, the piece ends with that fading, unresolved chord, only this time Hoffer has a surprise up his sleeve…

This album, released in 2012 and featuring the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra includes three additional works: the Elegy for a Friend, and Elegy for Violin and String Orchestra, music Hoffer wrote following the passing of friends and loved ones, and Symphony “Pousette-Dart,” inspired by the work of New York abstract expressionist painter, Richard Pousette-Dart.

A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Bernard Hoffer’s other memorable scores include cartoon music for Thundercats and Silverhawks.

Pluto, the Renewer

Pluto
An image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons flyby.

 

When Gustav Holst finished his seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32 in 1917, Pluto had yet to be discovered. By the time the distant celestial body was spotted in 1930, four years before Holst’s death, the composer had grown ambivalent about The Planets, believing that the work’s popularity had unfairly overshadowed his later compositions.

Fast-forward to 2000, when conductor Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra commissioned British composer and administrator of the Holst foundation Colin Matthews to “complete” The Planets with a six minute movement entitled, Pluto, the Renewer. Matthews, who admits that he had “mixed feelings” about the project, was up against a series of significant challenges. Holst’s masterwork feels complete as its final movement, Neptune, the Mystic  fades into intergalactic eternity. Additionally, Holst’s music is more concerned with the astrological properties of the planets than with astronomy. Pluto, three billion miles away on the edge of our solar system, remains astrologically fuzzy.

In the end, Matthews’ music may be as superfluous to Holst’s suite as Pluto (reclassified as a “dwarf planet” in 2006) is to the solar system. Still, Pluto, the Renewer is interesting music that deserves to be heard, especially in light of last week’s stunning images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. At times, Matthews music echoes the colorful orchestration and otherworldly atmosphere of Holst’s original score. Similar sounds can be heard in John Williams’ haunting 2001 film score for the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Listen here and here).

  • Find this recording on iTunes, Amazon
  • Listen to Gustav Holst’s The Planets here.

Music and Humor

images-6Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny.

To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and sincerity. The title of the series seems misleading because the adults in the audience were clearly learning as much as the children.

Bernstein’s episode inspired me to think about other examples of musical humor. Mozart’s A Musical Joke and Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians quickly come to mind. Here are a few more. In the thread below, add your own favorites.

Haydn’s Jokes

Franz Joseph Haydn’s music is full of humor, from the “Farewell” Symphony’s long, final diminuendo to a jarring fortissimo in the otherwise elegant Andante of the “Surprise” Symphony. Like all comedy, the element of surprise is a key ingredient. Throughout his life, Haydn was employed by aristocracy. He seems to have enjoyed keeping his employers on their toes with occasional, unexpected jokes.

The String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 is nicknamed, “The Joke.” Listen to the final movement, played here by the Buchberger Quartet and you’ll hear why:

Comic Voices in Early Beethoven

Last month, I pointed out some of the humor in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The final movement of Piano Concerto No. 1, a giddy, wild romp, contains similar comic elements. Unlike the elegant rondos of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s humor comes with a ferocious, gruff growl, especially in the thunderous orchestral tutti sections. There are also jarring accents on the “wrong” beats.

Listen to the clownish conversation between low and high voices (starting around 26:18 and continuing through 26:42). You’ll hear this back and forth dialogue throughout the movement (in the orchestra at 28:42 and 29:01).

Beethoven’s sudden modulations to remote keys keep our ears reeling. Following the cadenza at the end of the movement (31:06), think about where you expect the music to resolve and listen to the surprise we get instead. Beethoven has one more practical joke up his sleeve in the final bars of the concerto, so turn up your volume and listen closely…

In the first movement, listen to the way the opening “long, short, short, short” motive develops. This musical DNA pops up in subtle ways (the pizzicato in the development section beginning around 7:50). One of my favorite moments comes at the end of the development section as we anticipate the recap (9:26). Our expectation grows as the resolution we expect is delayed. Then, suddenly, the recapitulation hits us over the head.

Here is Evgeny Kissin’s recording with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo (14:33)
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando (25:11)

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32, was written between 1914 and 1916. Each of the seven movements depicts the astrological qualities of a planet in the solar system. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity evokes characters as well as jokes and fun-loving games. You can hear this between 0:58 and 1:20, in the big, low voice of the strings and horns, followed by the light, dancing woodwinds.

Here is a recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony:

Burlesque Copland

Let’s finish up with Burlesque, the fourth movement of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre. Entrances in the wrong keys and constantly changing rhythmic meters are part of the humor of this piece. We can almost imagine the clownish characters and their routine. In this case, it’s probably relatively low humor. The piece ends with one last practical joke…

Mars, the Bringer of War

MarsThis evening you may want to grab your telescope, head outside, and look into the southeastern night sky. Mars is making its closest approach in six years today, coming within 57.4 million miles of earth. Last month, NASA’s Curiosity Rover captured pictures of the earth as a bright speck in the Martian sky.

From Ray Bradbury’s 1950 collection of short stories, The Martian Chronicles, to current discoveries of possible water on Mars, the red planet has long been a source of fascination. In ancient Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war. Astrological associations with Mars were the inspiration for the first movement of The Planets, Op. 32, a suite by English composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1935). Here is Mars, the Bringer of War performed by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. Pay attention to the flow and rhythmic feel. Can you tell how many beats are in each measure? The answer may surprise you.

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Holst wrote this ominous music in 1914 at the onset of the First World War. It drives forward in an unrelenting 5/4 time (1-2-3-4-Five). It’s that last beat which makes the music feel slightly automated and unnatural, reflecting the blind insanity of a society marching towards self destruction. The opening of the piece calls for col legno, a sound effect in which the wood of the bow is hit into the strings. At 2:13 notice Holst’s use of the euphonium horn (tenor tuba). The trumpet fanfares which follow suggest the age-old sounds of battle.

Mars may have reminded you of the Imperial March from John Williams’ film score for Star Wars. Interestingly, both begin in the key of G minor, which has been associated with unease, conflict and tragedy going back to MozartThe Planets closes with the ethereal Neptune the Mystic . Compare Neptune to this excerpt from Williams’ 2001 film score for A.I. and consider all the other atmospheric Hollywood scores which draw upon these sounds.

[quote]Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.[/quote]

[quote]Do you ever wonder if–well, if there are people living on the third planet?’ ‘The third planet is incapable of supporting life,’ stated the husband patiently. ‘Our scientists have said there’s far too much oxygen in their atmosphere.[/quote]

-The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury