Benjamin Britten's War Requiem
© Aart van der Wal, January 2021
My subject is war
I don't think that there is any religious 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:
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 ( In Paradisum ).
Mixed choir with solo soprano 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 almost 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
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 non-individual, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
It paid off
Flaws ... but beauty prevails
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.
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:
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.