… a non-stop masterpiece without blemish — in fact, on a par with the two great Requiems of the 19th century, or for that matter, any other century
– William Walton, 1963, in private letter to Britten
… a non-stop masterpiece without blemish — in fact, on a par with the two great Requiems of the 19th century, or for that matter, any other century
– William Walton, 1963, in private letter to Britten
This blog is dedicated to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, in anticipation of its upcoming performance in Toronto.
War Requiem was commissioned to celebrate the consecration of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England (a.k.a. Coventry Cathedral), which had been bombed in World War II, and subsequently rebuilt. It’s an 85-minute work for orchestra and voices which uses the form and latin text of the Missa pro Defunctis, but also the stark, anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen. This pairing of texts represents the core of War Requiem, and is what gives it its poignancy.
War Requiem is, effectively, the effort of two artists, in joint denounciation of war. Owen spoke from Britten’s past, as Britten speaks from ours, a plea for us to recognize our common humanity.
If you haven’t heard War Requiem, there are a number of recordings available, including one conducted by Britten. I can also recommend the 1991 recording by the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox (Chandos).
It’s available, along with other recordings, from iTunes.
In the right margin of this page, you’ll find links to a few static pages, one of which explains just how bloggy this blog will be.
In 1958, Benjamin Britten was offered a commission to commemorate the rebuilding of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England, which had been bombed to ruins in World War II. Given complete freedom as to what he would write, he undertook a requiem mass. The requiem form has been a vehicle for many great composers, but Britten sought to write one of a different sort. In War Requiem, he sought to make critical commentary on the subject of war itself.
Given his intention, the traditional latin text would hardly suffice, yet without it, it could hardly be called a requiem. Britten’s solution was to intersperse the anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen in-and-amongst the latin. Owen’s fierce poetry stands in such marked contrast to the latin they seem to form another layer of meaning merely by their presence within the requiem. While Britten did not pioneer the use of contemporary poetry alongside religious texts (Ralph Vaughn Williams did it in 1936 with Dona Nobis Pacem), he did managed to devise a pairing that immediately creates an uneasy tension on the page, even before the first note is heard.
Wilfred Owen was an English soldier who valiantly fought in the trenches of World War I, even while he wrote poems bitterly denouncing war. Britten, for his part, was a conscientious objector during WW II and a committed pacifist. It’s not surprising that he found sympathy with Owen’s poems, but his idea to place Owen’s stark poems in amongst the traditional latin was daring and provocative. In a personal letter to the singer he hoped would sing the baritone part, Britten wrote about it this way:
I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale Requiem Mass for chorus and orchestra (in memory of those of all nations who died in the last war), and I am interspersing the Latin text with many poems of a great English poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the First World War. These magnificant poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass
Britten did not believe it was possible for music itself to be political, but thought that, with words set to music, to convey a political idea and provoke thought on the part of the listener.
War Requiem is a six-movement work that lasts approximately 85 minutes. In addition to the standard orchestra (including piano), the score calls for a separate “chamber” orchestra, three vocal soloists, full chorus, children’s choir, and organ. A performance of War Requiem requires close to three hundred musicians.
Britten didn’t employ such large forces merely for volume; each instrumental ensemble is separately paired with the different voices, which lends clarity to the form, as well as allowing Britten to pair the solo voices with smaller groups, allowing the words he felt were so important to be clearly heard.
In addition to employing Owen’s poetry, Britten further introduced elements of drama within the composition itself: the tenor and baritone soloists who sing the english poems are cast as soldiers, one ostensibly and English soldier, the other, German.
At times they sing seperately, at times together; but it is interesting to note that, since all their “dialogue” springs from Owen’s writing, they appear to be of like mind in regards to war, despite their official enmity. The tenor (English soldier) sings:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
and later the baritone (German soldier) sings:
Bugles sang, saddening the evening air
And bugles answered, sorrowful to hear
Britten even attempted to bring the internal scheme of War Requiem into the real world. For the premiere, he tried to have the roles of his soloists sung by singers from the matching nation: an Englishman (tenor), a German (baritone) and a Russian (soprano). In the end, the work premiered with only two of the three nations represented; Peter Pears sang tenor, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang baritone. Britten had engaged a willing Galina Vishnevskaya, but at the last moment the Russian authorities refused to allow her to participate, saying “How can you, a Soviet woman, stand next to a German and an Englishman and perform a political work?” Britten wished to affect the world with his music, but it turns out that it was easier for the real world to affect him.
The soldiers of War Requiem, even though cast as enemies, nevertheless have places to sing together — still not in conflict — and in a way that seems plausible for them both. In the second movement, they sing the text of The Next War:
Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death;
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand…
And at the end, they sing Strange Friend. In this poem, a soldier escapes the war to find himself in the afterlife (for Owen, it was Hell), where he encounters another soldier, who explains:
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.
The end of War Requiem ends with both soldiers singing “Let us sleep now,” while, slowly and for the first time, all the various ensembles join in, the choirs and soprano singing In paradisum deducan te Angeli(etc.), overtop in canon.
In what may be a symbolic of Britten’s writing in general, War Requiem ends with tradition: the choir, recapping the earlier tonal passage, accompanied by only the chimes, sing the latin: Requiescant in pace. Amen.
Britten’s views on violence “surfaced at age 15, when in school he received a failing grade for daring to write a passionate protest, not only against hunting, but also against any form of organized cruelty, including war.” His views were unpopular amongst some, if not much, of the English public, and some of his earlier work had managed to ruffle feathers (for example, Our Hunting Fathers). Shortly before war broke out in Europe, he had travelled to North America, not returning until the spring of 1942. This delay in returning home, combined with his known pacifist views, made Britten something of a target, and there were angry calls to boycott his music. Nevertheless, Britten’s held to his position, and he when the opportunity came, he did not shrink from the task of writing a stinging indictment of war, as powerful and direct as one can imagine.
The painter Sidney Nolan has said that Britten once said to him, of War Requiem: “Really what the whole thing is, it’s a kind of reparation. That’s what the War Requiem is about; it is reparation.”
As it turns out, War Requiem immediately became very popular, with the first recording selling 200,000 copies within five months of its release, and it is still performed to this day. Still, it seems too radical to become part of the canon. Eric Roseberry writes that its message is “too disturbing, too hostile to received notions of patriotism” to risk becoming institutionalized. As small evidence to that fact, note that on the Toronto Symphony website, it is described as “a choral masterpiece that mourns the loss of life in the Great War“. Of course, Britten clearly intended to indict all wars, but most pointedly the first and second World Wars. Apparently, even sixty-four years later, that message is considered too radical for polite discourse.
 Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography pg. 409
 Imogen Holst, Britten, pg. 20
 Carpenter, op. cit. pg. 408
For those of you who are interested, here is a reduction of the first two minutes of War Requiem. It’s a PDF file, so you’ll need Acrobat Reader in order to view it.
Clearly this is a dark moment; an introduction that doesn’t admit even one ray of sunshine; the introduction of doom.
One interesting thing revealed by this reduction is how economical it is. It consists of of four elements:
No huge chords, no crashing percussion, no devious instrumental technique. And yet it builds to a rather fearful climax. The PDF isn’t the whole intro, it gets much more intense a minute or so later, but you get the idea.
One part of this introduction that is unusual, is the extensive use of 5-tuplets. The question is, why? Someone once suggested to me that Britten was hoping to avoid the chronic “rounding” of dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythm that so often turns into a triplet. The quintuplet figure ostensibly forces the issue in the other direction. But I think it’s more likely that Britten want an unsettled rhythm, something out of the ordinary, something disruptive.
Britten was a composer of the 20th century, but not 20th century enough for some. His career spanned the major period of serial music, and he was well aware that he was something of an oddity in not adopting it. Here’s a nice quote from Britten, circa 1963, in which he says that serialism:
has simply never attracted me as a method, although I respect many composers who have worked in it, and love some of their works. It is beyond me to say why, except that I cannot feel that tonality is outworn, and find many serial “rules” arbitrary. “Socially” I am seriously disturbed by its limitations. I can see it taking no part in the music-lover’s music making. Its methods make writing gratefully for voices or instruments an impossibility, which inhibits amateurs and young children.
All that is important is that the composer should make his music sound inevitable and right. The system is unimportant.
He certainly wasn’t alone in his feeling about tonality — people like Leonard Bernstein seemed to have similar ideas — but I like this quote for its humility and openness, even while he stands firmly behind his position.
As well, his concern for amateur/young musicians, is very interesting, not least because of the underlying assumption that amateurs should might desire to play contemporary music. Britten even wrote several works where the audience was expected to sing (e.g. Noye’s Fludde)
For Wilfred Owen, whose poems provide the lyrical poignancy to War Requiem, the first World War served as a dark muse. It was also his nemesis. Owen’s twenty-five years on earth ended on the battlefields of France, November 4, 1918 — one week before the armisitice. Today, he is considered one of the finest war poets in the English language.
Wilfred Owen was drawn to poetry early on, and later declared that his poethood was born at age 10. His enthusiasm for poetry was in earnest; he wrote romantic odes to the poetic muse; he made pilgrimages to the homes where his beloved John Keats had lived; attempted a poem entitled Before reading a Biography of Keats for the first time, and, after visiting Keats’ house in Teignmouth (at which he stood and stared, until the current occupants became alarmed), wrote Sonnet, written at Teignmouth, on a Pilgrimage to Keats’s House. An inordinate amount of Owen’s youth seems to have had poetry as its focus.
But, as Owen ventured out into the world to earn his living, he seemed unsatisfied with his poetic accomplishments. He wanted to live the life of a poet, but needed to earn a living. At 21 years old, he found himself in France, teaching English at a Berlitz school, where his workload made it difficult to find time to write poetry. The drudgeries of his job seemed to reinforce his romantic notions of the poet’s life, wherein he would have solitude, and time for deep thought. He wrote to his mother that a poem could not “thrive on spare effort in odd times… If it is to be worth a place in Human Time, it must be worth more than fag-ends of the Poet’s time.”
He may have felt that his preferred career was slipping away:
Yet wait, wait, O impatient world, give me two years, give me two free months, before it be said that I have Nothing to Show for my temperament. Let me now, seriously and shamelessly, work out a Poem. Then shall be seen whether the Executive Power needful for at least on Fine Art, be present in me, or be missing.
He was twenty-one years old, with slightly more than four years left to live.
The war that began in the summer of 1914 would change his life entirely. It dramatically changed his poetry, and made his reputation as one of the great war poets. It changed his attitude towards his fellow man, as it put him in the company of soldiers of different class and backgrounds, and it gave him a view of the politics of war that he had never been forced to see.
At first, the war scarcely affected Owen, who was working in southern France as a private tutor. Judging by his letters home, he seemed politically unaware and naive. At the end of August 1914 he wrote to his mother:
I can do no service to anybody by agitating for news or making dole over the slaughter. […] While it is true that the guns will effect a little useful weeding, I am furious with chagrin to think that the Minds which were to have excelled the civilization of ten thousand years are being annihilated…
In retrospect, his callous reaction to the start of war was remarkable, given the views he developed as a soldier. A short time after the start of the war, he wrote these lines:
O meet it is and passing sweet
To live in peace with others,
But sweeter still and far more meet
To die in war for brothers.
This sort of sentiment would not have been uncommon at the time. Soldiers apparently marched off to war in an almost jubilant mood, sure of a swift and honour-laden victory. After much thought, Owen joined the Artists’ Rifles in October 1915.
Winter of 1916-17
We know of Owen’s experience as a soldier primarily through his letters. The fighting was brutal, and put an end to any thoughts of glory. The bitterness that Owen felt towards those who sought to glorify war was put in no uncertain terms in his poem Ducle Et Decorum Est, where he describes a gas attack, and the effect it had on a soldier who failed to get his mask on in time — and where he effectively recanted his earlier, cavalier thoughts on war:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, Incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
There was certainly nothing in Owen’s background to prepare him for what he was about to face. As for many soldiers, modern warfare turned out to be a far cry from the glorious battle told in story and song. From a letter home:
I suppose I can endure cold and fatigue and the face-to-face death as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language, and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil-ridden) — everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night — and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the “soldierly spirit”.
In this letter, it seems that Owen has sensed the fraud being perpetrated upon the public with patriotic poetry. Owen now openly rebelled against promoters of war, be they religious or poetic. In fact, the excerpt above (from Dulce et Decorum Est) was originally dedicated to Jessie Pope, whose poem The Call was a slap in the face to a soldier with real experience of the war.
Craiglockhart War Hospital
Certainly one of the main poetic influences in Owen’s life was Siegfried Sassoon, whom he met at the Craiglockhart War Hospital . Owen had suffered a concussion from a shell that had exploded close by and blown him into the air. Some days later, Owen’s commanding officer thought he was behaving strangely, and ordered him to report to the battalion’s doctor. The doctor’s diagnosis of Neurasthenia eventually saw him shipped to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he finally found his “month of seclusion”, and more.
Siegfried Sassoon was another officer/poet, but unlike Owen, Sassoon was already published and moving in literary circles. Sassoon became a sort of mentor to Owen, a person with whom Owen could take his poems for serious discussion and advice. But it wasn’t just poetic technique that Owen absorbed from Sassoon, for part of Sassoon’s literary circle were pacifists like Bertrand Russell.
It was under their influence, that Sassoon wrote what became known as A Soldier’s Declaration. This was a public letter, addressed to his commanding officer, wherein he refused to return to service. Sassoon came from a wealthy family, was a decorated officer, and was at the time recovering from a sniper’s wound. The letter was published in two newspapers, and read out in the House of Commons. Sassoon would have been court-martialed, but for the successful attempt of Robert Graves to have Sassoon declared unfit and in need of medical attention. Instead of court-martial, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockheart.
Sassoon’s own war poems, which contained uncommonly frank descriptions of war, gave Owen a kind of license to do the same. Owen’s poetry blossomed under Sassoon’s influence, and Owen gratefully accepted Sassoons suggestions and began his major period of poetic output. For his part, Sassoon realized that
“my little friend was much more than the promising minor poet I had hitherto adjudged him to be.”
Back to France
Towards the end of July 1918, it became clear that Owen would be sent back to the fighting in France. The influence of Sassoon was still on his mind: “Now must I throw my little candle on his torch and go out again… I am glad. That is I am much gladder to be going out again than afraid. I shall be better able to cry my outcry, playing my part.”
And still, there was the reality of being back on the front. He wrote to Sassoon: You said it would be a good thing for my poetry if I went back. That is my consolation for feeling a fool. This is what shells scream at me every time: ‘Haven’t you got the wits to keep out of this?'”
Yet he continued to write, and in one of his last letters to his mother: “I came out in order to help these boys — directly by leading them as well as an officer can, indirectly by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.”
There is one prophetic line that has always chilled me, showing that even in the first World War — the war to end all wars — there could be an awareness that this type of human behaviour could continue. In Strange Meeting, Owen wrote:
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars…
The poetry used in War Requiem can be found here.
Britten used Chimes (sometimes called “Tubular Bells”) throughout the introduction and as well as in the final measures. They introduce the motivic F#-C interval which is central to War Requiem.
Chimes are most often used to invoke church bells, church bells themselves being somewhat unwieldy instruments for the concert hall.
It would be easy to interpret them as a death knell, a cliché, but I’ve always thought that they came across as a warning. Even the bittersweet choral ending doesn’t escape:
For some reason, the use of the Chimes in what would otherwise be a hushed and solemn moment, seems to me to be a warning: it’s not over, this can happen again.
Britten, ever sensitive to singers, was also able to have the chimes serve as an introductory notes for the choir: the opening chord does not contain the F# that the sopranos first sing, but the Chimes knell F# one beat before the choir entrance, effectively offering the singers their note. Just in case.
Britten had considered writing something like War Requiem from as early as 1945, at the suggestion of the writer Ronald Duncan, who was appalled at the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Again, in 1948, Britten wrote to his publisher “that the death of Gandhi has been a great shock to one of my strong convictions, and I am determined to commemorate this occasion in, possibly, some form of requiem, to his honour.”
In the event, Britten began work on War Requiem in the summer of 1960.
 Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, page 405