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.

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