On Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem by Dr. Michael Sells

Symphony of Psalms | Igor Stravinsky (1882−1971)

From 1920 until the mid-1950s, Stravinsky’s music was associated with a style that became known as “Neoclassic.” This term identified the works of contemporary composers who wanted to reconnect with the formal balance and textual clarity that was particularly evident in compositions from the 17th and 18th centuries, but that was deemed lacking in music of the late 19th century. The Symphony of Psalms (1930) is emblematic of Stravinsky’s finest work in this style.

Symphony of Psalms was composed to “la gloire de DIEU” and dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra to honor the 50th Anniversary of its founding. Written for chorus and orchestra, the words are from Psalms selected from the 4th century Latin translation of the Bible (Vulgate).

The use of “Symphony” in the title is a bit misleading because Stravinsky uses neither the standard four-movement structure, nor the traditional instrumentation. He opts for three “parts” played without a break, and omits violins, violas and clarinets from the orchestra, while adding two grand pianos! Here the term “Symphony” is used in the more elemental sense of bringing orchestra and chorus together in a “harmonious combination.” In Stravinsky’s words, he “chose a choral and instrumental ensemble in which the two elements should be on equal footing, neither of them outweighing the other.”

The brief first part opens with an abrupt chord from the orchestra that announces a compact melodic and rhythmic motive. First heard in the oboes and bassoons, it functions as a type of ostinato throughout. In contrast, the chorus—led by the alto section—introduces the text as a plaintive lament that becomes an outcry through rising dynamic levels and ascending melodic lines. All this leads to a final fortissimo chord that serves less as an ending and more as harmonic preparation for the next section.

The second part, a double fugue, clearly displays Stravinsky’s mastery of counterpoint. Introduced by alternating flute and oboe solos, the first fugue theme is stated in the orchestra. The development of that theme continues as the chorus enters and adds the second theme, beginning with the sopranos and moving down through the sections. Once the fugue theme for the chorus has been introduced in all four voices, the orchestra briefly drops out and the choir states its theme in stretto (the fugue entrances, instead of being four full measures apart, are now only two beats apart) followed by a similar brief stretto of the orchestral theme, now with the choir silent. Finally, both themes are brought together fortissimo and with great rhythmic energy. But Stravinsky surprises the listener at the very end with a sudden drop in dynamics. The choir ends in unison while the low strings and trumpets sneak in a final reminder of the initial theme.

Stravinsky saved the longest and most complex part for last, despite being composed first. It is characterized by contrasting dynamics and tempi coupled with tremendous rhythmic vitality. It begins in a whisper—the initial “Laudates” almost seem too introspective—but soon contrasting outbursts of choral and orchestral “praise” energize both text and music. One recurring section features swirling triplet arpeggios in the pianos and wind instruments with added brass. Stravinsky said that when writing this particular moment, he was inspired “by a vision of Elijah’s chariot climbing the heavens.” As the final part slows and quiets, the choir reverts to the mood and music it had at the beginning; an almost trance-like incantation of “Laudate Dominum.”


Dona Nobis Pacem | Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872−1958)

Written for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra, Dona Nobis Pacem (1936) was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society. Texts are drawn from the Agnus Dei of the Mass, the poetry of Walt Whitman, a speech by British Member of Parliament John Bright, and selections from the Bible. The six movements are performed without pause.

This musical cautionary tale could not have seemed more prescient at the time. Vaughan Williams had observed the human devastation of World War I firsthand, and now he and all of Europe were witnessing the rise of Hitler in Germany. Poems of Whitman, written during the American Civil War, give beautifully phrased, if painful, testimony to the inhumanity of war. Words from John Bright’s speech in Parliament denouncing British involvement in the Crimean War (a paraphrase of Exodus 12:13) introduce the final two movements of Biblical text.

The brief opening movement is a prayer for the forgiveness of sins and for peace, set to the Latin words from the liturgy of the Catholic Mass. The final portion of this prayer (Dona nobis pacem) and its accompanying music return at moments throughout the entire work.

As the soprano soloist softly begins her plaintive prayer, there is a feeling of uneasiness and even urgency created by dynamic contrasts and harmonic instability in the orchestra. Quickly, the prayer becomes a frantic cry, as alarming outbursts from the orchestra indicate a war machine already at work. It is as if God is being invoked from the battlefield. The soprano soloist is left alone at the end, accompanied only by ominous drumbeats that lead into the next section.

As the second movement begins, drums are joined by trumpet fanfares that underscore Whitman’s powerful words of war upending every aspect of life; no one is left untouched by its “ruthless force.” The choir exclaims homophonically
(as one voice) and with relentless rhythmic drive. The orchestra provides the sonic violence inherent in the text. Only at the end does the music begin to relax as if the battle recedes for the moment.

In the opening of “Reconciliation” the baritone soloist is joined by the chorus in Vaughan Williams’s tender music that captures the poignancy of Whitman’s achingly beautiful words. Shortly it becomes clear that the soloist represents a soldier observing his fallen enemy in a coffin—“a man divine as myself”—and offering reconciliation with a kiss. During this intensely intimate moment, the orchestra (with solo violin) embraces the soloist with reminders of the melody heard at the beginning. This leads to a moving choral recapitulation of the opening text and music. At the very end, the soprano soloist joins with a quiet and somewhat halting restatement of “Dona nobis pacem” as this movement literally dissolves into the next.

As the poem title indicates, the fourth movement is a dirge (funeral march) for two soldiers, father and son, who have died and are to be buried together in a “double grave.” The nature of a dirge calls for a steady rhythmic pulse which Vaughan Williams establishes, alla marcia, in the orchestral introduction. There is sad irony in the fact that earlier, in the second movement, Whitman uses references to drums and bugles as instruments associated with militarism, yet in this poem they are identified as a “gift” by providing music to accompany the soldiers “passing to burial.” The final, most personal gift, delivered unaccompanied, comes from the chorus: “My heart gives you love.”

In a near monotone the baritone soloist begins the penultimate movement by softly intoning the ominous words of John Bright. Accompanied only by percussion and low strings, this hushed moment is immediately shattered by a forte burst from the soprano soloist, chorus and orchestra pleading “Dona nobis pacem!” From this point on to the end of the work, the text comes from various Old Testament books of the Bible, except for one phrase from the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps Vaughan Williams, though he espoused a “cheerful agnosticism,” acknowledged that earthly calls for peace were insufficient.

As the Biblical texts move from despair to hope and praise, so too does the music of the finale. From “Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” one senses a new spirit of optimism in the combined choral and orchestral forces. This is enforced musically by the addition of joyful bells, triangle, glockenspiel and organ to the instrumental texture.

However, even as hope and praise are celebrated with New Testament words, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men,” Vaughan Williams reminds us that peace remained elusive in his time (as we recognize its absence in our world today). With the words from the chorus resounding in our ears, the music inevitably returns to a subdued, perhaps weary, mood. The orchestra slowly fades away leaving only the chorus to accompany the soprano soloist’s halting “Dona nobis pacem.” By the end, the final whispered “pacem” comes from
a lone voice.

To paraphrase the World War I anti-war poet Wilfred Owen: “all a poet and musician can do today is warn.”

Dr. Michael Sells
Professor of Music Emeritus | Butler University

The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir presents Sacred Masterworks | Stravinsky & Vaughan Williams February 3, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. For more information click here.