Monday 29 August 2022

Dona nobis pacem: Grant us peace

This is part of a series of reflections on current or future repertoire as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, the English speaking choir in Madrid.

What is this music?

Dona nobis pacem is a Latin text, in this version is it sung as a round. The words, which mean "Grant us peace", come from a portion of the Agnus Dei which is part of the mass or Eucharist:

“It is the invocation to the Lamb of God to have mercy and grant peace to the worshipers. 

It is said to have been introduced into the Mass by Pope Sergius I in 687, and is the last phrase of the Latin form:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.”*

Here’s a translation, courtesy of St George’s Anglican Church, no, not in Madrid, in Ontario, Canada:

“O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us your peace.”**

The origins of this round are unclear. In most hymn books it is listed as Traditional, code for unknown composer. 

Trinity College of Music in London have some interesting notes on the round, which are worth looking at, and they credit two possible composers:

It is often attributed to the composer Palestrina, but some argue that it was written by Mozart.” ***

The first two bars have a down-up shape: in bar one down a 4th and up a 6th, in bar two even more exaggerated, down a 5th and up a flattened 7th. The rest of the first phrase, all of the second phrase and the beginning of the third phrase are made up of repeated notes or gently falling scale passages. 

Finally, in bars three and four and seven and eight of the third phrase there is a rising pattern followed by an octave dive downwards, only at the end returning inwards up a 4th. 

A fanciful analysis might see the early and final bars as active and the rest as passive: perhaps the active bars are aspirational, hoping for, claiming a right to peace, before subduing in the gently falling passages into a passive acceptance, perhaps waiting for peace to be passed down, or accepting that peace is elusive.

Why are we singing it?

It’s a beautiful piece of music. Even though the authorship is unclear, we know this piece has been sung for hundreds of years, so as we sing it we are connecting with innumerable human beings around the world in so many different circumstances. 

Since it is a round we are connecting with the rest of the choir in a special way: in strict four part harmony each voice line, typically SATB, is independent and keeps out of the way of the others. On the other hand, in a round we all sing all three lines, perhaps starting individually and then together, so we are connecting closely with our fellow singers. 

Connecting is a crucial part of singing in a choir: after all, if we simply want to sing we can just stay at home and sing in the shower/wardrobe/loft. The very act of joining a choir says that we want to connect with other human beings through singing: Dona nobis pacem gives us the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Is it relevant to us today?

We can approach this text in a number of ways. We can sing it, as intended, as a prayer to the Lamb of God to grant us peace, as in the peace that comes from having sins forgiven. 

We can sing this as a call to those in power, calling on them to be peacemakers, not bringers of war: the number of armed conflicts active around the world is numbing and those of us fortunate enough to be at a safe distance can often lose track of the dreadful suffering these conflicts cause as they drag on year after year, slipping further and further down in our news feed, whatever media we follow. 

We can sing this phrase as a personal reflection, using it to help find peace and calm with ourselves, within ourselves: some would say that if we want peace in our hearts, we as individuals hold the key to our own inner peace. For some, to want it is to sing it is to find it. 




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