Songs of war, death and redemption, and invocations for God's mercy hardly constitute an evening's light entertainment, but they nonetheless dominated the program of earnestly performed musical offerings by the Choir of the National Shrine last night at the National Gallery.

Director Robert Shafer makes a most convincing case that the voice is not only the most natural musical instrument, but with proper training and professional guidance can be the mightiest of all, larger and more expressive than any gargantuan orchestra dreamed up by Berlioz, Mahler or Wagner (is it any coincidence that these composers concentrated the bulk of their output on vocal scores?).

Six American composers were represented on the program; one, Russell Woollen, acknowledged sustained applause for the choir's lovely first performance of his "Dante's Praises to the Virgin Mother," inspired by a selection from the Italian poet's "Paradiso." Many in the audience felt a strong impulse to close their eyes to prohibit any distractions and concentrate fully on the choir's sensual, ethereal performance. If the composer's intention was to instill wonderment and mystical reverence for the goodness of God's creation, then the choir succeeded admirably, layering great masses of unified or singular voices in close juxtaposition.

The short first half comprised the music of Edward MacDowell, Horatio Parker and Vincent Persichetti. While not exceptionally innovative, all were pleasing, polished musical vignettes. The poems of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, with music respectively by William Schuman and Robert Evett, suffered from unintelligible intonation. Schuman's treatment of Whitman's "Carols of Death" was fully realized, and a tribute to the poet's genius. Melville's "Mask of Cain" was straightforward, attuned strictly to the natural rhythms and cadences of the phrases, and lacked the exaggerated embellishments of the former. Even without reading the accompanying lyric sheet, however, the choir's evocative singing easily communicated the emotional content of the works to the listener.