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The Musical Symphony of a Papal Encyclical

Above: Pope John XXIII at a celebration of the Greek rite in 1961.

Sixty years ago today, on April 11, 1963, Pope John XXIII († 1963), two months before his death, signed his eighth and last encyclical, “on establishing universal peace in truth, justice, charity, and liberty”: the Pacem in terris. This of course was in the immediate aftermath of the most bloody conflict the world has ever seen, and in the midst of Vatican II, the so-called “post-war council.”

The Contents of the Encyclical

He addressed it to the clergy and to the people, as well as, for the first time, “to all Men of Good Will.” At the beginning of the Encyclical we read: “Peace on Earth — which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after — can never been established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order” (n. 1).

After an introduction, the letter is developed in five parts. The first part deals with the order between men, clarifying both the table of rights and that of the duties of the human person, which arise immediately and simultaneously from his very nature and which are “universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable” (n. 9).

The second part tackles the relations between individuals and the public authorities. The third deals with the relations between states, with two important passages, in the wake of both the aforementioned world war and the Cuban Missile Crisis less than a year prior: “a general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program” (n. 112), “in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice” (n. 127).

The fourth part discusses the relationship of men and of political communities with the world community. Finally, a fifth part contains some pastoral exhortations, where it is rightly recalled that peace is not merely an absence of violence but the presence of justice:

peace is but an empty word, if it does not rest upon that order which Our hope prevailed upon Us to set forth in outline in this encyclical. It is an order that is founded on truth, built up on justice, nurtured and animated by charity, and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom (n. 167).

Does Pacem in terris start a new orientation? Did it open the door to a collaboration between Catholics and Communists? Has it developed a typically Masonic program? Did it adopt the heresy of religious freedom in an equivocal way? Did it uncritically adhere to globalism? As Pope Benedict XVI († 2022) did in a letter dated September 29, 2014 to Prof. Marcello Pera, we cannot deny that

the discontinuity between the statements of the popes of the nineteenth century and the new vision that begins with Pacem in Terris is evident and on it there has been much discussion. It is also at the heart of the opposition of Lefèbvre and his followers against the Council (in Il Foglio, May 8, 2018).

But let’s leave these discussions to others and limit ourselves to taking advantage of this anniversary to talk about music. Yes, because on the Latin text of the Encyclical was written — a unique case in the history of music — the monumental Pacem in terris, choral symphony for 2 solo voices, chorus and orchestra, by the composer Darius Milhaud († 1974), “a Frenchman from Provence, and by religion a Jew,” as he liked to describe himself.[1]

It was Michel de Bry († 1970), secretary of the Académie du Disque Français, who in April 1963 proposed to Milhaud, who had been president of that Academy since 1956, the idea of making an important  composition of it, to be performed at the inaugural concert of the Paris’s new Maison de la Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française. In Aspen, Colorado, “sustained by the sentiments of this great patriarch, who vehemently criticized discrimination, racism, injustice, infringements on liberty, and atomic weapons, and who fervently expressed a desire for world peace, I composed the Pacem in terris between July 7 and August 6, 1963.”[2] Of this work, performed for the first time on December 20 of the same year in the new hall, the composer recalls:

His idea seemed insane to me. Collaborating with a pope! What insurmountable difficulties that would raise. Michel de Bry was undeterred by my arguments, and he made me promise to read the Encyclical right away. This text made a profound impression on me. It unveiled the injustice in our society and supported all the theories I held dear. I started to think seriously about de Bry’s project, but it seemed unfeasible, and besides, I knew that it was forbidden to abridge a papal or liturgical text. De Bry, always devoted and dynamic, proposed to me that he would take all the necessary steps with Rome. He obtained all the requisite authorizations from the Vatican: the right to choose extracts from the Encyclical in order to create a choral symphony with them, to have it edited and performed as I pleased.[3]

At the head of the score, the composer placed the verse of the prophet Isaiah (2:4): “The shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” The work is conceived for an alto, a baritone, a mixed choir, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, a bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, a contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, a bass tuba, timpani, percussion and strings. The result is about fifty minutes of music, divided into seven movements, extracted from the 172 paragraphs of the Encyclical: I. Pacem in terris; II. In hominis iuribus; III. Auctoritas enim; IV. Mutua scilicet; V. In huismodi causis; VI. Cuius quidem; VII. Cum gravissimis igitur.

The title of the work is immediately formulated by the chorus which is followed by a serene theme by the orchestra. Now the baritone, now the alto sing the words of Pope Roncalli; the choir quotes texts from Sacred Scripture, from Popes Leo XIII († 1903) and Pius XII († 1958) and from St. Augustine († 430). Everything takes place in a large lyrical movement without orchestral interludes. Towards the end the voices of the soloists and the choir overlap with the Lutheran hymn Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier (Dearest Jesus, we are here), used several times by Johann Sebastian Bach († 1750), but here harmonized differently from that of the great German composer. Milhaud found this reference perfectly appropriate to John XXIII’s last words sung in the choral symphony, where the Prince of Peace is called for (cf. Is. 9:6):

May He illumine with His light the minds of rulers, so that, besides caring for the proper material welfare of their peoples, they may also guarantee them the fairest gift of peace.


[1] D. Milhaud, Notes sans musique, Juillard, Paris 1949, p. 11.

[2] D. Milhaud, Ma vie hereuse, Paris 1973, p. 279.

[3] Ibid.

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