Benjamin Britten's War Requiem


© Aart van der Wal, January 2021


My subject is war
and the pity of war.
The poetry is in the pity.
All a poet can do is warn.
Wilfred Owen

I don't think that there is any religious musical work in the history of the 20th century which has so strongly dominated the public reception as Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, commenced in April 1961 and finalised in January 1962. Not only the world's top orchestras, choirs, soloists and record labels took the work to concert halls and recording studios, but also regional and non-professional ensembles worked themselves through this rather complex score.

War Requiem comprises three different layers or planes:

•  Boys' Choir (accompanied by the organ) depicting the utter world of innocence, not (yet) invaded by the dual forces of evil, sorrow and death. The ethereal sounds reflect the virginal paradise in all her shining beauty (as in In Paradisum).

•  Solo soprano with nixed choir and full symphony orchestra, displaying the liturgic vision on good and evil, life and death, violence and redemption.

•  Solo tenor, baritone and chamber orchestra to embody the misery of the battlefields as described in the both philosophical but also gruesome poetry of Wilfred Owen, the British soldier who died in de trenches of the First World War, just days prior to the final cease fire.

Three layers separated from each other in the score, until at the very end, in the Libera me they fuse seamlessly together. Despite all the previous tremendous climaxes this offers the real culmination of the entire work, the both liberating and deeply moving catharsis .

The work's originality – and it may sound like a paradox – partly stems from influences by Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi Mahler, and even Berg, composers all belonging to Britten's musical alliance. There are no verbatim quotations (except those distant echoes in Recordare Jesu pie from Mahler's Farewell in The Song of the Earth), Britten keeping a firm hand on his own marking as a composer.

Hiroshima and Ghandi
Britten's initial idea was to compose a full-scale oratorio to commemorate the devastation after dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In 1948, soon after the death of Mahatma Ghandi, the Indian politician and human rights activist became Britten's new source of inspiration by honouring the memory of this great man, but it was not until the commission coming from Coventry Cathedral that his plans for an full-length oratorio really got into place in his mind.

That he chose, apart from the well-known and highly traditional Latin liturgy text, for the parable war poetry of Wilfred Owen might have surprised many as these texts were not only mainly unknown, but in those early sixties hardly anybody had even ever heard of Owen, both as a poet and a soldier. Nevertheless, Owen's deeply impressive poetical images and pondering straight from the frontlines appeared to be a huge source of inspiration for Britten. In addition, it fired Britten's fundamental conviction of pacifism even more. It all led to what had not been done before: interweaving the almost impersonal Latin text of the Requiem Mass with great, quite astonishing and highly individual poetry.

Both Owen and Britten must have deeply felt that war itself would - no matter what and how - finally end up as bare historical fact. Although there was some hope at the time that those committed crimes and incomprehensible atrocities during the war, in any war, could still resonate in the minds of next generations. Owen's words have already been quoted: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn'. But is was a warning in vain, as 21 years after the First World War the Second World War broke out, with even more horror, bloodshed, devastation, taking the lives of millions of innocent people: politicians, ethnic groups, homosexuals, mentally handicapped, communists, Roma, Sinti, Jews, soldiers, flying crews, sailors and many more. But it also meant that Owen's clear message was to remain as actual as ever. In 1944, it was the mutual understanding that endless killing and destruction should never happen again, but Britten knew too well that it could.

Spatial effect
As said, War Requiem is architecturally differentiated in three distinct but related musical layers (or planes) with soloists, choruses and orchestras physically separated most of the time. Britten conveyed those layers as to demonstrate people's deafness, blindness and indifference towards one another, not only when facing each other; and not only as soldiers at both ends of the fence or trench, but also incorporated in civil life.

By exploiting the huge scale of the cathedral and its acoustics and with the establishment of different performing groups doing (singing or playing) different things, Britten created a huge and quite impressive spatial effect, revealing at the same token common disdain by the people of all nations for human life and sacrifice, war and demolition. As if Britten felt strongly connected with that famous phrase from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen'.

In this spatial setup, tenor and baritone soloists (they sing Owen's poetry) together with the chamber orchestra portray the victims of war. On another level, full chorus, solo soprano and full orchestra portray the establishment within the boundaries of the ritualistic, formal and devout mourning Latin text. Personal grief expressed by tenor and baritone and formal devout mourning by the chorus are therefore clearly juxtaposed in this most extremely weighty framework of events. The children's choir and the organ (positioned away from the other groups) present us with the ethereal portrait of the purest of all innocence, those high vocal lines smoothly floating down on us as coming from another world (comparable to the beauty of the solo violin part in the Benedictus of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis). Innocence on the brink of being destroyed in the trenches of war.

It might just be the strongest characteristic of the entire work: the extraordinary tensions created by juxtaposition and superimposition incorporated in these three different layers (or planes). And particularly when performed in a spaciously laid-out venue offering the possibility of optimal physical separation between the various groups.

BBC premiere recording
The premiere took place on 30th May 1962 at Coventry Cathedral by Peter Pears (tenor), Heather Harper (soprano), Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (baritone), the Coventry Festival Choir, the Boys of Holy Trinity, Leamington and Holy Trinity, Strattford, John Cooper (organ), the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra con conducted by Meredith Davies and the Melos Ensemble conducted by Benjamin Britten.

Britten was mostly present during the many preparations and rehearsals in the cathedral (as shown in the picture below).

The event was recorded by the BBC, but it took almost half a century to have the recording released on CD (including the full BBC announcement). Why did it take so long? The reasons are twofold. The first: Britten's unhappiness with the quality of the performance. The second: the now famous and at that time first release of the stereo recording, by Decca in 1963, produced by John Culshaw.

Peter Pears during the rehearsals at Coventry Cathedral. Below in the background Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau listening.

Decca recording
This time, the recording's venue was not Coventry Cathedral, but Kingsway Hall, London in January 1963. Again with Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but on this occasion with the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (married to the well-known Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovitch, both of them as friends strongly connected to Britten). Furthermore, the Highgate School Choir, the Bach Choir (its chorus master the famous David Willcocks), Simon Preston (organ), the London Symphony Orchestra and again the Melos Ensemble, with Benjamin Britten as the one and only conductor for the event. Kenneth Wilkinson was the main recording engineer engaged for this quite challenging project.

Decca recording in Kingsway Hall, London, with the Bach Choir and soprano Galina Vishnevskaya

Profound symbolism
From the very beginning it happened to be Britten's most thoughtful and original idea: to opt for three soloists, two of them symbolising part of the allied powers at the time: the British represented by the tenor Peter Pears and the Russians (or Soviets) by the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The third party were the Germans embodied by the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Still, another quite affectionate symbol originates from the work itself: the Requiem's layered architecture, resembling the cathedral's ancient (nothing more but the ruins left after the German bombing) and new layers (as glorified after the restoration). The image below shows the remains after the bombing by the German Luftwaffe on 14th November 1940.

Coventry Cathedral shortly after the bombing

It all looked like a perfect setting for the premiere, but it did not quite work out that way as the Soviet's cultural state agency withheld – and at very last minute - Vishnevskaya the required visa to perform at Coventry. Her request and consecutive attempts by others in the UK were simply rejected. Not that strange: the Cold War was far from over and the Cuba crisis in 1962 caused the world to balance between survival or total destruction. The last minute solution came from the courageous Heather Harper who was willing to take over Vishnevskaya's soprano part.


Decca's LP release

It paid off
The circumstances preceding and following the recording are extensively described in Culshaw's autobiography ‘Putting the record straight'. It is, among so many other things, most interesting to read that Decca's management and marketing department did not embrace the recording project from the beginning, forecasting high expenditure in conjunction with low sales. Later on, there was strong opposition against Culshaw's idea to have the lay-out of the boxed set restricted to pure black with white lettering. No, that would not sell at all, was Culshaw's first encounter with the sales department. But Culshaw's idea and persistence finally paid off: the set not only became a classic of the gramophone but also reached incredible sales figures (250,000 copies already within five months after the first release), whereas the release still stands as a milestone by which others are judged; and rightly so, if only because if its exemplary authentic nature and with the composer himself at the helm (like in so many other Decca recordings).

Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten and John Culshaw during the recording sessions in Kingsway Hall, London

Flaws ... but beauty prevails
However, that first recording, taped at Coventry, reflects quite another milestone still: that of the very first performance, despite its flaws. To start with: the (mono) recording: its quality is – to put it mildly – much less sophisticated than Decca's stereo equivalent. Heather Harper was required to study her role on very short term, a far from easy endeavour but given the circumstances she did magnificently and fully engaged. But the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was still rather far away from those great qualities as they were much later accomplished under the baton of Simon Rattle. The same applied to the rather mediocre vocal qualities of the various choirs. Only the Melos Ensemble as a chamber music group stood out in comparison. In addition, one could also say that Meredith Davies as a conductor did an excellent job not only by keeping the different forces with their varying background impressively together, but also by maintaining urgency, tension, forceful expressiveness as well as expansion where required. Although no listener will escape what might be considered as a main drawback: – be it almost inevitable under these very pressing circumstances: the Dies Irae section ‘Be slowly lifted up', where the timpani thunderstorm and trumpet fanfares have to seamlessly interact with the chamber ensemble. However, all missed the first bar, followed by forced continuous shifting from which the messy rollercoaster was born that no musician could have been really looking for.

As there were more moments where emotions almost ran out of discipline or where forward thrust reigned over detailing. But this performance also shows directness without compromise, the overwhelming beauty laid out in a strongly evocative pattern that could only warm the soul, added by that unspeakable feeling of being present at a great, even divine moment of solemn gravity. The sensation also, be it afterward, of a premiere which was – luckily although in rather bad mono sound – recorded and preserved.

This is why the premiere recording even supersedes the famous Decca recording. The story even goes that after the final bars had faded away in the cathedral, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was so paralysed by emotion that he needed to be assisted by Peter Pears to get out of his chair. Not only the work but also Germany's history as a war nation and its committed atrocities must have completely overwhelmed him by this once-in-a-lifetime-experience.


Wilfred Owen

Profound warning
There is that deeply involved wording by Wilfred Owen which Britten put on the score's frontpage:

My subject is war
and the pity of war.
The poetry is in the pity.
All a poet can do today is warn.

Frankly, these striking words say it all. At least to me, liaised with wat is now just history: the years of war, anxiety, horror, sacrifice, mutilation and killing. But War Requiem takes us even an important step further as the work not only referred to what had been, but also to what it still could be in the future, as a message of warning to mankind.

From the very beginning, still in the preliminary stages preceding its conception, Britten had felt the very essence of walking the path through both the Latin text of the Missa de Profundis and Wilfred Owen's deeply notched poetry. Poetry which ‘tells it all', without textual embroidery but fully committed and straight to the heart of mankind as these fragments show:

What passing bells for these 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.
What candles may be held to speed them at all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

(Tenor, Baritone)
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.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.

No soldier's paid to kick against his powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death - for Life; not men - for flags..

It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."

"None", said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
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.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
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..."


Wilfred Owen was killed in action when crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal in occupied France on 4th November, 1918, when the final truce was just a week away. His mother received the telegram announcing his decease exactly on Armistice Day. He was buried at the cemetery of Ors in France. His mother chose a few words from one of his poems: “Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth all death will he annul” W.O.

Britten said about War Requiem: I suppose it is the piece I hope will be remembered longest. But that is not because of the music, it is because of the message contained within, which I hope will be used for many years to come'. The score was dedicated ‘in loving memory' of four young men, three of whom were killed on active service in the Second World War.

Britten's private life has been subject to controversy, as we can read from his biographers, contemporaries and those who found themselves in his life circle. Controversy focusing on his homosexuality, his relationship with Peter Pears and his dealings with young boys. Fair to say that War Requiem stands on its own solid and solemn feet and should be regarded as such, without any unduly interference by whatever source.

Useful links:

How War Requiem came to be written
War Requiem - Manuscript
War Requiem - Full text (pdf)

War Requiem - From the Red House

War Requiem - First performance (Spotify)
War Requiem - Decca recording (Spotify)

War Requiem - 1964 performance (YouTube)
War Requiem - 2014 Performance (YouTube)