Setting the pity of war to music: Britten′s ′War Requiem′ | Music | DW | 06.04.2018
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Setting the pity of war to music: Britten's 'War Requiem'

Benjamin Britten dedicated his extravagant denunciation of war to friends he lost in the trenches of WWI. Nearly 60 years after its premiere, the pacifist's masterpiece is still touching musicians and listeners alike.

Benjamin Britten War Requiem (Getty Images)

English tenor Peter Pears rehearsing for the premiere of Britten's 'War Requiem'

Two souls meet in Hell. They've met before – when one killed the other in the trenches, not out of hatred but circumstance.

So goes one of one of Wilfred Owen's poems. Written in the trenches of the First World War, the words of the English poet were a kind of eyewitness account. "My subject is War, and the pity of War / The poetry is in the pity," Owen said of his deeply sad and unsentimental verses. "All a poet can do today is warn."

The British composer Benjamin Britten would later inscribe these words at the top of the score to his "War Requiem" Op.66, which includes several of Owen's poems set to music. In one of Owen's books of poetry, Britten underlined a passage which reads: "I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church. Namely, that one of Christ's essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonor and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill."

Wilfred Owen (picture-alliance/United Archives/TopFoto)

British poet Wilfred Owen

Owen himself died in France in 1918, aged just 25. The senseless death of this staunch pacifist came just one week before the Armistice.

Britain's best-known pacifist

Britten, also a pacifist, went to the United States just before the outbreak of the Second World War. When he returned to Britain in 1942, he was recognized as a conscientious objector on moral grounds. In a statement before the tribunal, Britten said: "Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to not to help to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual's actions or thoughts."

Britten and his partner, British tenor Peter Pears, were still in the United States on November 14, 1940, the night the German Luftwaffe launched its infamous attack on the city of Coventry. The bombing raid, known as "Operation Moonlight Sonata," more or less flattened the industrial city – along with its 14th century cathedral. The ruins of the gothic structure were later integrated into the new cathedral, which was consecrated with great fanfare in 1962. The search for the right composer to create music for the event led to Benjamin Britten.

The multiplicity of the musicians

The composer came up with a very special kind of requiem. His roughly 90 minute work incorporated the text of the traditional Latin Mass as well as Wilfred Owen's poetry.  "These magnificent poems filled with the hate of destruction are a kind of commentary on the mass," Britten wrote.

Benjamin Britten around 1948 (Getty Images)

Benjamin Britten dedicated his 'War Requiem' to friends who died in the First World War

Despite the extravagant lineup of a full orchestra, chamber orchestra, mixed choir, chamber choir, three vocal soloists and an organ, the "War Requiem" is still performed relatively frequently. The work follows a particular pattern: two male soloists, accompanied by a chamber orchestra, sing the words of Owen's poems; a soprano performs the part with the Latin Mass text along with a mixed choir and a full orchestra; and in between, as if from a distant world, the ethereal sound of a boys' choir emerges, accompanied by an organ. The combined forces come together at the end in a brilliant climax.

Two orchestras, two choirs, two conductors

At the premiere on May 30, 1962 the task of handling the rich sound of the "War Requiem" was split between two conductors. Britten himself took the chamber orchestra, while Meredith Davies handled the full orchestra.

"This was because of the interior space in the cathedral," British conductor Jeffrey Tate explains. "The different musicians were very far apart from one another." The unusual solution became a tradition; the piece is almost always led by two conductors.

As a sign of the reconciliation between once or still hostile countries, the plan was to bring British tenor Peter Pears, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya together on stage for the premiere of "War Requiem." But with the Cold War in full swing, Vishnevskaya was not granted a travel permit. British soprano Heather Harper filled in.

Coventry Cathedral (picture-alliance/robertharding/N. Clarke)

Part of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, where Britten's 'War Requiem' premiered

No other premiere in the history of English music has ever attracted so much attention. As the final chord faded, the cathedral fell into silence. Britten had explicitly requested no applause.

To this day "War Requiem" is seen as the Briton's masterpiece. The music is simultaneously modern and traditional. It is captivatingly new, yet somehow familiar. Britten dedicated the piece to four of his friends who fell in the First World War. All he had to say about his own work was: "I hope it'll make people think a bit."

A life-changing experience

Benjamin Britten (AP)

Benjamin Britten rehearsing in Berlin, 1968

Britten's "War Requiem" was, and is, a challenge for every musician, "a risk", according to Tate. "Everything has to be perfect."

Stephan Sieck, choirmaster at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, United States, adds that this is a musical piece of extreme dynamic contrasts, "either a deathly whisper or really loud, with very little in between." He says performing this work is a "life-changing experience" for musicians.

Even ahead of the 1962 premiere, the British newspaper The Times recognized the meaning and effect of Britten's masterpiece: "It is not a requiem to console the living. Sometimes it doesn't even help the dead to sleep soundly. It can only disturb every living soul for it denounces the barbarism more or less awake in mankind with all the authority that a great composer can muster."

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