Background on Dona Nobis Pacem Submitted by Charles Bihler
As the American Civil War was beginning Walt Whitman published his poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” as a patriotic rally call for the North. Reading a casualty list, he thought he spied his brother on it and decided to head South to find him if her were alive (He was indeed alive and only superficially wounded.)
A friend got him a part time job in the army paymaster’s office in Washington DC, leaving time for Whitman to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals. This experience produced a vivid poem, “Drum Taps” in 1865. It was followed by a poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln entitled “O Captain! My Captain!” which has extremely popular and contributed to his newfound fame.
The poetry of Whitman became somewhat of an obsession of the young Vaughan Williams whose first setting of Whitman, from “Leaves of Grass,” was the text of his first symphony, A Sea Symphony. This was followed by other settings, culminating in Dona Nobis Pacem. Asked about his use of many Whitman texts, Vaughan Williams said “I just can’t get him out of my mind.”
Certainly, Whitman’s war poetry contributed to the development of the young Vaughan Williams as a pacifist. But service in the Great War was required, and he became an ambulance driver. As much time as
he spent in bringing the sick and wounded to hospital, he spent an equal amount bringing in the dead, as well as untold parts of soldiers.
Vaughan Williams has been described as either an agnostic or an atheist. He was nevertheless one of the greatest composers of sacred music during the twentieth century. Dona Nobis Pacem is a personal plea for peace composed in 1936, when war again clouded the horizon in Europe. It is a powerful synthesis of the experiences of a deeply and richly led life.