» Archive for October, 2007

Britten: War Requiem

Saturday, October 20th, 2007 by Martin Hester

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem Op.66
Pears / Fischer-Dieskau / Vishnevskaya
Bach Choir and LSO Chorus. LSO. Conducted by the composer.

Every year in November the British Nation holds a Remembrance Sunday, to honour those who fell in the two World Wars. This year in Rio, as reported elsewhere in this Umbrella, it is on 11th November in Christ Church in Rio de Janeiro.
One of the most potent artistic expressions about war is the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten, Britain’s most notable composer of the 20th Century. In it, he brought together the poems of Wilfred Owen, written during the First World War, and the Latin form of the Requiem Mass. There are three soloists – two men, who sing the poems in recitative – and a soprano, who sings most of the Mass in Latin together with a mixed choir. There is yet, on a more ethereal plane, a boy’s choir and organ. On this recording from 1963, the soloists are tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s great artistic partner), German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (see GL of June 2006) and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (GL last month). They thus represented the three nations most engaged in the European conflict of WWII. The choirs and orchestra are also among Britain’s finest at that time. All these elements are brought together by Britten in masterly fashion. His modern classical music obviously draws on the heritage of Mahler, Richard Strauss, Shostakovitch, and Vaughan Williams in its harmonies and richness of orchestral effects. It is free in form, but stunning and profoundly shocking in its effect. I listened to the War Requiem once in 1966, and only just now felt able to take it up again.

Owen and Britten
Wilfred Owen was born in 1893, a product of the English middle class, and of nearly 100 years of Pax Britannica. We should remember that at that time acts of war were glorified, as were acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, and devotion to the cause of the nation. Owen was educated at Birkenhead, failed to get a scholarship to London University, and was at the outbreak of WW1 teaching English in south-west France. But after visiting a hospital in France for the war-wounded, he himself resolved to volunteer in 1915, and after training he began active service in 1917 as an officer in the Manchester Regiment. After some 5 months active service, he returned to the UK, shell-shocked. While in hospital in Craiglockhart, he showed some of his very personal poems to Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him, and he wrote prolifically of his experience of war – until August 1918, when he returned to the front. Involved in some of the last actions of the War, he was awarded the MC, but killed in action at a canal crossing. His parents received the telegram with the news of his death at the same time as the bells rang across the country celebrating the Armistice on 11th November 1918.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was born in Suffolk, and began composing in childhood. He studied with Frank Bridge, and through his life wrote much innovative music in a great variety of genres, as well as performing as pianist and conductor. In 1939 he emigrated to the US, being a conscientious objector to the war then starting, but returned in 1942. The War Requiem was commissioned for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962.

The War Requiem
The Requiem opens quietly, with a bell tolling, and short dissonant phrases from the orchestra, while the distant boy’s choir sings Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord). Then the tenor, with rebellious revolted angular phrases, sings the first poem – 
          What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
          Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
          Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
          Can patter out their hasty orisons.
          No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
          Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
          The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
          And bugles calling for them from sad shires……….


In the second part, Dias irae, dies illa (Day of wrath and doom impending) the fanfares from trumpets trombones and timpani portend the Day of Judgement with awe and apprehension, before the soprano and chorus make a strident protest – the plea Salva me, fons pietatis. Then in a rather jaunty march with drums, tenor and baritone sing
          Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death;….
          Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe….


The chorus of women continue Recordare Jesu pie…. ne me perdas illa die… and then the baritone, in slow threatening phrases with drums and trumpet:
          Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
          Great gun towering t’ward Heaven, about to curse;
          Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
          And beat it down before its sins grow worse;….


In the Lacrimosa that follows the soprano sings of the days of tears and mourning, and her deeply moving song of grief is broken into by the tenor –
          Move him,
          Move him into the sun –
          Gently its touch awoke him once,
          At home, whisp’ring of fields unsown.
          Always it woke him, woke him even in France,
          Until this morning and this snow.
          If anything might rouse him now
          The kind old sun will know….


The Latin words of the Offertorium translate as “We offer unto Thee, O Lord, sacrifices of prayer and praise…” while Owen’s poem recalls the story of Abraham and Isaac – except that now the sacrifice of the Ram of Pride is not accepted:
          … the old man would not so, but slew his son, –
          And half the seed of Europe, one by one,….
Sanctus has fanfares and shouts of praise, followed by a poem of despair with what is done and cannot be undone, while Agnus Dei intersperses a poem with Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace).
The plea for deliverance of Libera me starts slowly and quietly, but the plea grows stronger and stronger, joining choir, soprano, orchestral brass in Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis et miseriae, with a side drum like a machine gun, big dissonant terrible chords, and the soprano above – Libera me! We join it at Quando coeli movendi sunt……

The final poem recounts a Strange Meeting – a soldier’s dream of going down a tunnel “where encumbered sleepers groaned”:
          …. one sprang up and stared
          With piteous recognition in fixed eyes…..

and reveals
          ….. I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
          I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
          Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
          I parried; but my hands were loath and cold,
          Let us sleep now….
And the sound of the choirs, soprano, and boy’s chorus gradually dies away as a bell tolls:
Requiescant in pace. Amen.