War Requiem

February 27, 1988, 08:00 PM
John Currie, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
War Requiem Op. 66 Benjamin Britten
Karon Poston , Soprano
Paul Johnson , Tenor
David Downing , Bass
Pasadena Boys Choir , Children's Choir


I first heard Britten's War Requiem on the radio, the live broadcast of the first performance. The effect, even on radio, was overwhelming. There was also some celebration that Britten had written, at last, a large-scale oratorio, his first significant large-scale work since Peter Grimes. It was also an important moment of reconciliation with the German people who had bombed to ashes the old Coventry Cathedral, and now the new building had commissioned this work from Britten, a pacifist, at the time of the new cathedral's dedication.
Since then, it has been recognized as a significant work of our century, but I now realize how much more quickly new listeners can enter into its fuller experience if the conductor provides some sort of "navigation chart.”
Here is my chart, and I hope it is helpful.
First, look at the stage and you will see a large symphony orchestra, a chorus, a small chamber orchestra, and three soloists - soprano, tenor and baritone. You will not see a boys choir: they sing off-stage, remote, on the specific instructions of the composer. These distinct groups represent different elements in the drama. The chorus, the main orchestra, and the soprano convey the traditional texts of the Mass for the Dead.
The separate chamber orchestra accompanies the two male soloists, who represent an allied and a German soldier. These two men sing the secular, and often cynical war poems of Wilfred Owen. As songs, these war poems are thrust between sections of the mass in a way which interrupt and also points up awful, heartbreaking ironies.
The boys choir, singing in far-off innocence, somehow underline the pity of war, like disembodied children who were "sacrificed" (to use old man's jargon from World War I). Thus the work is ripe with cruel puns and ironies which are the result of the clash of the sacred text with the song-settings of the war poems. (An incidental irony is that Owen himself was "sacrificed" shortly before peace was declared.)
Here are some of the musical and literary puns. Mourning bells are heard at the beginning and recurrently. The first war poem is "What passing bells for those who die as cattle?" In the Abraham and Isaac episode, Owen sees Isaac, the small biblical son, being bound with belts and straps, ready for slaughter by his father. Belts and straps were, of course, standard paraphernalia of the young boy sent to be slaughtered (or sacrificed) in World War I. Dies Irae, the medieval hymn about terror, judgment, and the destruction of the world, is normally set with explicit musical references to the "the last trump" which will raise the dead to judgment. Mozart uses the trombone; Verdi uses a flamboyant team of off-stage operatic trumpeters. But Britten uses bugle calls, and slowly creates a monstrous musical pun whereby the Day of Judgment is really a war, and Dies lrae (God's wrath) is the terror and cruelty of human against human.
Bells toll, the strings play a trudging, lamenting melody, the choir mutters "Requiem aeternam . . .” In the distance the boys sing a lively "Te decet hymnus" - in some ways almost like an innocent singing-game. The bells and the muttered prayers return.
The First Song, for tenor and chamber orchestra, interrupts. Notice that the poem is a chilling catalogue of the ceremonial objects of death corrupted by war. Bells: none "for those who die as cattle.” Prayers: "the stuttering rifles.” Mourning: "the choirs of shrill demented wailing shells.” Candles: "In their eyes shall shine the holy glimmer of good-byes.” Kyrie follows, set as a slow antique prayer. This hushed solemn music, definitely "church" music, (but shot through with the dissonance of the mourning bells) occurs three times: here as the Kyrie, later as the Pie Jesu, ending the Dies lrae, and as the final bars of the whole work ("Requescant in pace, amen"). At the end of this simple prayer the dissonance of the bell is resolved in extreme quietness and peace.
Fanfares, really army bugle-calls, ring out. Trombone, trumpet, and horn call to one another. The last bugle-call is a disastrous downward plunging theme for trombones and tuba. The choir sings the old Latin words, and the military brass, with increasing strength and vulgarity continues to answer the choir.
The Second Song, for baritone, is Owen's sad, dark "Bugles sang . . ." The connection, and the irony is obvious. The soprano sings a dramatic "Liber scriptus."
The Third Song is a swaggering duet for two soldiers: "Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to death.” It is one of Owen's bitterest poems. The bravado of the soldiers' words does not hide their fears and pessimism.
Recordare. A quartet of trumpets and women's voices leads to Confutatis, a violent war-dance by the men of the chorus, as if invoking a curse.
The Fourth Song is indeed a curse. A huge gun is slowly raised, punctuated by the bugle calls - "Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm . . .The final line, "May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul" brings back a fuller, more violent version of the seven-in-a-bar Dies Irae theme.
Lacrymosa. Soprano and chorus weep in a conventional lament. The Fifth Song, for tenor, interrupts. It is the Owen's poem of the dead young farmer, killed in the trenches of France. His comrade hopes that the sun will awake the dead man. The religious 'Lacrymosa" now repeatedly interrupts the song, but does not prevent the bitter conclusion: “Was it for this the clay grew tall? O what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth's sleep at all?" The mourning bells and the antique prayer ("Pie Jesu") return to conclude the Dies Irae.
In the distance, the boys call out the words of the Offertorium - "Jesu Christe!" It is lively, innocent and playful. The sacred text returns with "Sed signifer . . .” "Quam olim Abrahae" ("as promised to Abraham and his seed for ever'') becomes the Sixth Song, a reworking of Britten's earlier "Canticle II,” the profound Abraham and Isaac myth. But in Owen's version there is no rescuing angel. The patriarch disobeys the voice of God, kills his boy "and half the seed of Europe one by one.” The ending of this song, with the boys singing Hostias in the distance as the two men repeat the final dreadful words, is not only a coup de theatre, but also one of the most moving moments in the work.
"Quam olim Abrahae,” subdued almost to extinction, returns.
The percussion and solo soprano opening is like the invocation of a god (or a devil) by a priestess or sorceress. Nothing could be further from Isaiah's vision of holiness, nor the setting of these words by Bach or Beethoven. Pleni Sunt Coeli is a rising excited mutter from the chorus, like a tumult in heaven. Hosanna is a jubilant cry of voices with trumpets and drums in the time-honored key for such celebrations: D major. Benedictus: Soprano and chorus. Hosanna returns.
The Seventh Song (baritone). The poet's questions about the weariness of age and hope of renewed life on the planet, draw bleak answers from, first, Age and then the Earth.
5. AGNUS DEI and the Eighth Song
Here is the crux of the tragedy. The tenor commences the song. It is Owen's poem on the "Calvary" (or field-comer crucifix). One of the image's legs has been blown off by an explosion. The choir sings the Agnus Dei. But after the final verse of the song ("But they who love the greater love, Lay down their life, They do not hate'') the tenor completes the sacred text: ''Dona nobis pacem" (Give us peace). It is the first and only time in the entire work that the soldier prays or repeats any conventional religious words. The song is, of course, about the "greater love.”
An apocalyptic movement in which the cries of the chorus and the soprano reach a huge climax (recalling the Dies Irae en route) before subsiding to the Final Song. This is a setting of "Strange meeting.” Two soldiers meet in a strange, limbo-like territory of underground caverns. They are enemies. One has been the slayer of the other. It is Owen, as sung by the baritone, who points the moral:
". . . And of my weeping something had been left
Which must die now.
I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled ...”
But it is Britten who takes their final words, "Let us sleep now,” and weaves a huge tapestry of reconciliation. For the first time in the work, all the performers sing and play together. The soldiers continue with "Let us sleep ... “ the boys, still distant, soar above in the old hymn "In paradisum...”joined, gently rising, by the chorus. Dissonant funeral bells return, and we hear, last of all, the antique-prayer music, with its extraordinary, luminous final cadence.
This is a work heavy with history and tradition. Britten even imitates to an extent the pattern of keys used by the older masters in their settings of the Requiem. But the songs, the war poems, call in question the beliefs of history and church. The score is prefaced by Owen's words:
"My subject is War and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity.
All a poet can do is to warn.”
On the night of November 14-15, 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, the citizens of Coventry, England, awoke to the drone of German Luftwaffe bombers overhead. Within a brief period 450 tons of explosives rained destruction on this center of aircraft and munitions manufacture. Almost totally demolished, except for some stark skeletal walls and its tower/spire, was the city's fourteenth-century perpendicular Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael.
In 1961, after fourteen years of planning, a new modem Cathedral, designed by Basil Spence, was nearing completion adjacent to the preserved bones of the old structure. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in that year accepted a commission to compose a large choral work for the festival of the Arts projected to glorify the dedication of the new church. Britten's new work was the War Requiem completed in December, 1961, five months prior to its proposed premier.
Two factors motivated Britten's approach to the composition of this Requiem, a work which would stand, like his opera Peter Grimes first had in 1945, as the second great artistic watershed of his productive life.
Britten grasped the challenge which the new Cathedral's acoustic ambiance afforded him. Later in 1964 he gave expression to his views. "The best music to listen to in a great Gothic church is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance. This was my approach to the War Requiem - I calculated it for a big reverberant acoustic, and that is where it sounds best.” On the night of May 30, 1962, the War Requiem received its premiere performance. Situated within the spacious sanctuary of the splendid modern Cathedral, in front of the world's largest tapestry of Christ seated in medieval majestry, arms raised in prayerful supplication and surrounded in mandorla with the Biblical symbols of the four Evangelists, soloists, choruses, orchestras and the two conductors, Meredith Davies and Britten performed the War Requiem before an awed and profoundly moved audience.
Britten's biographer, Michael Kennedy, writes: "No one who was in Coventry Cathedral on the evening of May 30 will ever forget the emotional effect of its first performance.” William Mann's review in The London Times next day noted that the work was "so superbly proportioned and calculated, so humiliating and disturbing in effect, in fact so tremendous, that every performance it is given ought to be momentous occasion ... [it is] the most masterly and nobly imagined work that Britten has ever given us.”
Mann's comments about the War Requiem five days prior to that premiere performance highlighted the second factor which· had motivated Britten to its composition: "It can only disturb every living soul, for it denounced the barbarism (of war) more of less awake in mankind with all the authenticity that a great composer can muster:'
The work immediately enjoyed numerous performances, perhaps too numerous, throughout England and the world. A splendid one took place under Britten again with Pears and Fischer-Dieskau in the glorious baroque German church of Ottobeuren. These many performances served with perfect timing to commemorate the 50th anniversary in 1964 of the outbreak of The Great War.
Britten distributes his voices and instruments so as the better to emphasize the different levels of poetic illumination in the texts both of the Latin Mass and of Owen's poetry. Peter Evens describes this procedure in his analysis in the New Grove Dictionary. Owen's nine poems are reserved for the tenor and baritone soloists, illuminated by the intricate detail of the chamber orchestra accompaniment. On the one hand, the Latin text veers between liturgical passivity characterized by the impersonal emotionless boys' voices with organ, and on the other hand mankind's mingled mourning, supplication and guilty apprehension finds expression in the dramatic large chorus with its full orchestra. At times these textures are sublimed by the soprano solos. The work's planes are thus spiritually separated and its dramatic impact depends chiefly on stark confrontation rather than through a symphonic working out. The Requiem's fusion of diverse traits from earlier Britten compositional procedures suggests his determination to give his utmost in preaching an urgent text.
“In the light of history,” observes analyst Anthony Milner, "no work could give an adequate assurance of an end to conflict, still less of peace. Concert audiences the world over have recognized the War Requiem’s timeless relevance to the human condition."
Britten was a life-long pacifist. His first primitive experience of war's barbarism occurred at the age of 5 when in November, 1918, a German bomb exploded adjacent to his home at Lowestoft in Suffolk near the coast of the North Sea. For the War Requiem's genesis, moreover, November, 1918, was crucially seminal. On November 4, a week before the Armistice, Britain's greatest World War I poet, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), after having won the Military Cross for gallantry, was killed while leading an attack against a German position. Unlike such then currently popular poets as Rupert Brooke, who glorified the image of noble British youth sacrificing life and limb for king and country, Owen's acerbic poetry emphasized war's essential barbarism. "I am not concerned with Poetry,” he wrote as he lay in a Scottish hospital during most of 1918 recovering from his wounds. "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.”
For Britten and his generation, Owen's warning proved futile, symbolized in the grim, stark ruins of St. Michael's Cathedral.
While dedicating the War Requiem to four friends killed in World War II, Britten incorporated parts of Owen's unpublished preface into the preface of the Requiem. He concerned himself ultimately, however, with reconciliation. To this end and conscious, as William Plomer has observed, of Owen's essentially Christian frame of mind, Britten inserted nine of Owen's image-filled and emotionally charged poems trope-like into the static though often dramatic liturgical Latin texts of the Mass for the Dead. Plomer, in 1964, thus noted that Brittten had not only written a sublime new Requiem Mass, but brought out the full force and clarity of the utterance of an unforgettable poet. Directly, he had given it a new, much wider, and perhaps lasting significance troubling the deeper levels of our human nature.
Performed within the new Cathedral, risen phoenix-like in triumph from the ruins of the war-scarred city, reconciliation was to be highlighted through the presence of the Soviet soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, the Enlish tenor Peter Pears, and the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The conciliatory thrust of the whole work culminates as Tenor and Baritone in duet sing Owen's poem Strange Meeting with its poignant, ironic words “I am the enemy you killed, my friend …” Then while Tenor and Baritone repeat "Let us sleep now,” all the Requiem’s performing forces unite to sing their welcome by the choirs of angels and the host of the Age, martyrs into paradise with the words of the In Paradisum.
Britten's project note of reconciliation sustained minor setback at the premiere performance when Heather Harper replaced Vishnevskaya, who could not be present. Subsequently Galina sang the soprano solo in the recorded performance of 1963 under Britten's direction. This recording manifested the widespread enthusiastic reception of the masterpiece. Within five months of its release an astonishing 200,000 sets were sold!

Track Name Listen
Requiem Aeternam 19880227-01.mp3
Dies Irae 19880227-02.mp3
Offertorium 19880227-03.mp3
Sanctus 19880227-04.mp3
Libera Me 19880227-05.mp3
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