Symphony Notes: The War Prayer
By Chuck Lavazzi
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's (SLSO) season may have been cut short by the COVID-19 crisis, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of the music scheduled for the next several weeks at home, at least on recordings.
This coming weekend the concerts would have included two works that owe their genesis to World War II: Vaughn Williams's "Dona Nobis Pacem" from 1936 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, Op. 100 from 1945. The concerts would have opened, though, with a newer work that seems to have little connection with the other two: Arvo Pärt's 1977 "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten" for string orchestra and chime (a.k.a. tubular bell).
By Woesinger - Arvo Part,
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Composed to honor the death the previous year of the British composer, whom Pärt greatly admired for "the unusual purity of his music," the work is, like much of the contemporary Estonian composer's music, a massively complex sonic structure that still sounds very simple.
Using only the pitches of the A minor scale, the "Cantus" begins with three solo strikes of the chime, after which the strings enter softly while the chime continues to sound. The music moves slowly to an ecstatic climax on an A minor chord that abruptly stops, leaving only the fading overtones of the chime.
It's a work of mesmerizing intensity, in which time seems to both stand still and move more quickly than expected--a characteristic it shares with the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. It's simultaneously despairing and hopeful--both a dirge and a celebration.
Hear it here: Multiple recordings, both audio and video are available at YouTube including a rather good one by the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic under the baton of Kristjan Järvi, the Estonian-born son of the noted conductor Neeme Järvi. Amazon Prime subscribers can stream recordings by the Staatsorchester Stuttgart and the English Chamber Orchestra. Although they are both celebrated composers, Britten and Vaughn Williams don't have that much in common. Britten, in fact, once said that Vaughn Williams's music "repulses me." But both composers wrote powerful anti-war music.
Britten composed his powerful "War Requiem" for the consecration of the Coventry Cathedral in 1962 whereas Vaughn Williams wrote his "Dona Nobis Pacem" in 1936 on a commission from the Huddersfield Choral Society for a centenary concert. Britten was looking back on the devastation of World War II, while Vaughn Williams was writing from the perspective of someone who had served in the Army Medical Corps in World War I and was disturbed at the signs of gathering war clouds again. Neither work has been performed in St. Louis recently to the best of my knowledge, although there was a stunning performance of the "War Requiem" in 2013 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And the composer's own 1963 world premiere recording is available for free on Amazon Prime.
Indeed, as Carol Talbeck writes in program notes for the San Francisco Choral Society, Vaughan Williams's work "anticipated by 25 years Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem,' with its dramatic settings of Latin liturgical text and poetry and its emphasis on reconciliation." So maybe that's the real link that takes us from Pärt's "Cantus" to "Dona Nobis Pacem."
|Ralph Vaughan Williams
"Dona Nobis Pacem," in any case, would have been a fine showpiece for the SLSO Chorus, with complex, overlapping vocal lines and a wide emotional range. Running just under 40 minutes, this moving cantata combines three poems by Walt Whitman with bits and pieces of the Roman Catholic Mass, a late 19th century political speech, and quotes from the Bible (the Book of Jeremiah, most prominently) into a condemnation of the last war, a warning about the next, and a prayer for peace. It's not heard that often, so I'll be going into a bit more detail about it than I would for a more well-known work.
Consisting of six movements played without pause, "Dona Nobis Pacem" opens with a solo soprano singing "Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem" ("Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace") from the final section of the Roman Catholic mass. The movement is in three-quarter time, but Britten's melodic lines break up the rhythmic pulse in ways that make that hard to hear and give the music a sense of aimless yearning. The chorus joins in, and soon the music becomes anguished before giving way to the angry, martial second movement.
Based on "Beat, beat, drums" by American poet Walt Whitman, the text is a chillingly impersonal portrayal of the way war shatters and poisons every area of human endeavor:
Beat! beat! drums! -- blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows -- through the doors -- burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
The complete text is available online but you get the idea: nobody is safe, not even the dead:
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums -- so loud you bugles blow.
The next two movements are also based on Whitman poems. "Reconciliation" is a quiet meditation on war's aftermath, featuring a baritone soloist. Unlike the previous movement, the viewpoint here is intensely personal, as the final lines make clear:
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.
A funeral march announces the "Dirge for 2 Veterans," sung by the full chorus:
The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finished Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking
Down a new-made double grave.
Given the way "Reconciliation" ends, you might assume the two veterans are the enemies in the previous movement. But you'd be wrong:
For the son is brought with the father,
In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans, son and father, dropped together,
And the double grave awaits them.
For Vaughan Williams, this was clearly a warning that the world was heading for yet another conflagration in which the sons of those who fell in the last war would fall in the next. He was, of course, quite correct. Indeed, now that we live in a Permanent Warfare State, he is still correct.
The death march continues in the fifth movement, which begins with an anti-Crimean war speech by leftist British statesman John Bright (1811-1889):
The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one as of old..... to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on.
The cry for peace, "Dona nobis pacem," rises again loudly and urgently in the chorus and soprano solo, but it quickly dies out as the chorus sings the dire words of Jeremiah 8:15-22:
We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!
The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan; the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land..... and those that dwell therein.....
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved....
Is there no balm in Gilead?; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?
Finally, a shift to D-flat major and an uplifting brass chorale announces the final movement, beginning with far more hopeful words from the Book of Daniel: "O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong." This leads, in turn, to an exultant invocation from various Biblical sources of a world in which "Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
The music becomes increasingly jubilant as the higher orchestral voices become more prominent, joined by bells and cymbals in the percussion section. Even the organ joins in for some added weight. It all swells to a final, joyous hope for "Good will towards men" from full chorus and orchestra. A quieter coda follows as the chorus and solo soprano repeat the plea "dona nobis pacem" a cappella. It all ends with the final "pacem" sung by soprano alone, pianississimo, with a diminuendo sign and the word niente, the musical equivalent of "fade to black."
It's a more hopeful vision than the one Vaughan Williams had offered in his Symphony No. 4 in 1931 (which got a splendid reading by the SLSO in 2018) but, sadly, it was less realistic.
Hear it here: There are, of course, many recordings on YouTube, including one by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Richard Hickox that includes a synchronized display of the score. Amazon Prime members can stream a fine complete performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Bryden Thompson. Prime also offers a recording by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and The Bach Choir with David Hill but, for reasons known only to Amazon, that version requires you to pay extra to include the "Dirge for 2 Veterans" movement.
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A more upbeat vision of wartime is offered from the work that would have concluded the evening, Prokofiev's 1944 Symphony No. 5. Last heard here in September 2014 with David Robertson on the podium, it's one of the composer's more popular works.
Composed at the artists' colony of Ivanovo east of Moscow just as the war with Germany was turning in Russia's favor, the symphony was described by Prokofiev as "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit," and while there is certainly an air of triumph, especially in the majestic opening theme, it has always seemed to me that the war was never far from the composer's mind. You can hear it in (among other places) the militant percussion of the first movement and the anguished climax of the third.
The aura of triumph is also leavened by Prokofiev's characteristic irony. The composer of the "Sarcasms" for piano always seems to have a raised eyebrow or cynical smile behind his most demonstrative music. In the 5th symphony sarcasm takes various forms, including caustic comments from the brass and percussion and the deliberate interruption of the boisterous Allegro giocoso finale by a short, dissonant passage for string quartet and trumpet.
Still, the premiere on January 13th, 1945, was a huge success. Prokofiev himself conducted the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The performance was preceded by a ceremonial barrage of cannon fire to celebrate Russia's advance into Germany, which no doubt helped set the victorious mood. "There was something very significant in this," recalled the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who was present at the performance, "something symbolic. It was as if all of us -- including Prokofiev -- had reached some kind of shared turning point."
And, in fact, they had. Russia's crossing of the Vistula River into Germany was a major turning point in the war on the Eastern Front, which had been a long and bitter business. Of course, it was also a victory for Stalin, but that's another story with a less happy outcome.
Hear it here: YouTube includes a 2013 London Proms performance by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and a 2015 live recording by the Mariinski Theatre Orchestra under the formidable Valery Gergiev. The synchronized score recording is by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra from the mid-1960s.