The deeply moving cantata “Dona nobis pacem” (c.1955), for voices, organ, tympani, side-drum and concertante piano, by the Aberdeenshire composer Ronald Center (1913-73) juxtaposes Civil War poetry by Walt Whitman with liturgical and Scriptural texts, to shattering effect. The work begins and ends with a searing plea for peace – “dona nobis pacem”, grant us peace, and at the heart of the piece, a childlike setting of these words is constantly interrupted by a a violent, dissonant, rhythmic cadenza for the solo piano.
“Dona nobis pacem” is a like a miniature “War Requiem”, but it was written several years earlier than Britten’s masterpiece. RonaldCenter was in fact an exact contemporary (and admirer) of Benjamin Britten. Though Center’s music sounds nothing like Britten’s, the Scottish and English composers share an uncanny gift for conveying the utter wrongness of the drowning of “the ceremony of innocence” by mindless violence. In a very real sense, their music is always a statement in favour of peace and justice. “Dona nobis pacem” features a major solo part for Center’s own instrument, the piano. On 22nd the soloist is Elgin-born Christopher Guild, who has just released a CD of Center’s piano music – which is filled with quotations from and echoes of nursery rhymes and children’s songs. “Dona nobis pacem”, like all Center’s compositions, juxtaposes darkness and light, violence and innocence, beauty and terror, without ever offering the listener an easy way of ‘resolving’ the paradoxical coexistence of these opposites in human life. As a result, Center’s often disarmingly attractive music has power to disturb our complacency and self-delusion.
The first part of Friday’s short concert is a beautiful, simple setting of the Latin mass by the Scottish Renaissance master Robert Carver (1486-1568) – like Center’s great cantata, the mass ends with a ravishingly beautiful but infinitely sad “Agnus Dei”, concluding with the words that express mankind’s deepest yearning “Grant us peace”.
Tickets £5 (concessions £3) available at door. For further information call 0131 229 0993
Jamie Reid Baxter