It seemed appropriate that on Memorial Day, we were singing this evening Haydn's Paukenmesse, "Mass in Time of War," and Vaughn Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem." These are very different pieces, one melodic and classically structured, the other unsettling, brutal at times and disillusioned, but with a stark beauty -- and yet the two works share not only their use of a fabulous percussion score, wonderfully stirring and martial, but a culmination on the Latin text dona nobis pacem, "grant us peace."
Garrison Keillor, in "The Writer's Almanac", which I heard on the radio on the way to choir practice, said that Memorial Day was originally not a day for speeches and debates, but simply a day for both sides -- as it was not long after the Civil War -- to come together and remember, not to judge, but just to remember. We do so much judging these days, and so little remembering.
The Vaughn Williams piece is set to Biblical texts -- "Nation shall not lift up their sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" -- and three poems by Walt Whitman. Whitman is a lot like Vaughn Williams, I think, weird and wonderful. Sometimes I think he's a bit, well, over-the-top, but other times, even with the same poem, I can't read it without tears in my eyes. This is from "Dirge for Two Veterans" --
I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-keyed bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they're flooding
As with voices and with tears.
I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring,
And every blow of the great convulsive drums
Strikes me through and through.
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.
Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.
In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumined,
'Tis some mother's large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.
(The soldier in the photograph is a cousin of mine, some half-dozen generations back, from Ohio.)