War Requiem, Opus 66
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity.
All a poet can do today is warn. Wilfred Owen
One of the defining works of the twentieth century, and arguably the greatest masterpiece of Benjamin Britten’s illustrious career, the War Requiem is a profound statement of the composer’s pacifist convictions. From an early age, Britten, growing up as he did between the First and Second World Wars, was deeply aware of the futility and sheer human cost of warfare. He was in America with his partner Peter Pears when the Second World War started and did not manage to return to England until 1942. As a conscientious objector, Britten was generally able to work at his art, but he was well aware of the carnage around him. After the war he was taken to Bergen-Belsen, which, he said darkened the whole of his life.
From that time in 1945, Britten looked for an opportunity to create a large-scale work that would express his deepest beliefs; in 1958 he got his chance. The fourteenth century Cathedral of St. Michael’s in Coventry had been largely destroyed in an air-raid in November 1940, and after the war plans were drawn up to build a new Cathedral adjacent to the surviving facade of its predecessor. Britten was commissioned for a work to celebrate the consecration of the new edifice in May of 1962, and was given carte blanche as to the size and scope.
Britten had long been an admirer of the war poets – Brooke, Sassoon and especially Wilfred Owen. Owen, born in 1893, was working as a private tutor in Bordeaux when the war broke out and initially believed that it would soon be over. He joined the officer’s training corps of the Artists Rifles, and after serving in England arrived at the front in the latter part of 1916. Owen was just finding his voice as a poet and was writing in the same patriotic spirit as Rupert Brooke, but the horrors of trench warfare caused him to question everything that he believed. Owens’ first tour did not go well; he was blown into a shell hole, he was blown into the air by a mortar shell and he was left out between the lines for four days. Shell-shocked, he was taken to a sanitarium where he met Siegfried Sassoon, a much more experienced poet, who gave him guidance and discerning criticism, allowing him to find his mature voice in his own poems. Owen, though still not in good health, decided to return to the front, where he was killed just ten days before the armistice, having just been awarded the Military Cross. Owen’s greatest poems explore his conviction that combatants are more unwitting victims than enemies, and that there is something inherently wrong in a world in which Christian nations can go to war against each other. Britten, upon re-examining Owens’ work, saw a way that he could incorporate Owens’ message into his own, to convey a message of enormous power.
Britten determined on a bold plan for his new work. He would combine a full scale setting of the Latin Missa pro defunctis (Mass for the Dead) with a more intimate song cycle made up of nine of Wilfred Owen’s poems to create a whole that expressed both the public and the private nature of loss, and in the end, of reconciliation. Having conceived of the work in its entirety, Britten began work in early 1961, completing it in January 1962. Britten was determined that the War Requiem must be both reconciliatory and largely ecumenical in spirit. He wrote the three solo parts for three specific singers; English tenor Peter Pears, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.
The full complement of musical forces was staggering – choir, boys’ choir, full orchestra, chamber orchestra, piano and two organs. The Soprano and choir with full orchestra were for the Latin liturgy (the work in its public persona) and the Tenor and Baritone with chamber orchestra (for a more intimate personal commentary). The boys’ choir is more remote, more unworldly. There is a suggestion of angelic voices from on high dispassionately maintaining the ritual of the Mass while more lives are needlessly lost – a disturbing aural image.
The War Requiem was first performed at the consecration festival in Coventry Cathedral on May 30th, 1962. An immediate popular and critical success, the premiere was bittersweet for Britten. It was at the height of the cold war, and Vishnevskaya was refused permission to leave the Soviet Union. Soprano Heather Harper had been called in at the last minute and had sung brilliantly, but it was not at all the statement of international co-operation that Britten had envisaged. (Britten’s original conception was realized the following year when it was recorded in London for Decca which went on to sell 200,000 copies in five months.)
The work is in six movements:
Darkly portentous, the Requiem aeternam for chorus and boys’ choir leads to the dramatic, “what passing bells…” tenor solo with chamber orchestra from Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.
The Dies irae opens with a host of trumpet calls leading to an athletic chorus which gains ferocity until the baritone solo “Bugles sang” from Owen’s But I was looking at the Permanent Star. Liber scriptus for soprano and semi-chorus progresses through Owen’s “Out there we walked quite friendly up to Death” (The Next War) for tenor and baritone to a Recordare for women’s chorus and a Confutatis for men’s chorus. The savage “Be slowly lifted up” baritone solo, from Sonnet on Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action is followed by a reprise of the Dies irae, and then Lacrimosa interspersed with the pitiful “Move him, move him, into the sun” from Futility.
The Offertorium begins with Domine Jesu Christe for boys’ chorus, which leads into the rousing Quam olim Abrahae and to the dark heart of the whole work, Owen’s The Parable of Isaac and Abraham for tenor and baritone. The boys’ choir enters with a chilly Hostias et preces and the chorus reprises the Quam olim Abrahae.
The terrifying Sanctus and hypnotic Benedictus for soprano and chorus lead to the stark “After the blast of lightning from the East” from The End.
Agnus Dei (chorus) is interspersed with “One ever hangs” from At a Calvary near the Ancre.
Libera me begins with a brutal crippled march for chorus which leads to the soprano’s Tremens, tremens, factus sum Ego and to a devastating climax which, passing away, reveals the tenor, singing “It seemed that out of battle I escaped”(Strange Meeting). Succeeded by the baritone, “None said the other, save the undone years” the two voices eventually join forces, to sing “let us sleep now..” as all of the forces unite in a gentle harmonic reconciliation In Paradisum, followed by the concluding Requiem aeternam and Requiescant in Pace for boys’ choir and chorus.