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War Requiem, part two

Benjamin Britten's work is a massive piece with a unique story. The superlatives are enhanced by a lineup of about 300 musicians in the performance you'll hear this hour.

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Concert Hour: War Requiem, part two

This performance features an orchestra made up of young musicians from Germany and France and youth choirs from four different countries.

Agnieszka Franków-Zelazny, artistic director of the Polish National Youth Choir, described the effect of hearing these young musicians making music together: "I was sitting on the audience during the rehearsal and my jaw dropped because they were so truthful and so natural," said Franków-Zelazny in an interview with DW. "They play on these instruments and I hear the war - and sometimes I hear sounds from battle. It's beautiful." 

The War Requiem consists of Britten's setting of the Latin Mass and of verses by English poet Wilfred Owen. It's scored for vocal soloists, full-sized choir, children's choir, chamber orchestra and full orchestra.

To manage these diverse forces, two conductors are usually engaged - which, conductor Daniel Spaw explains, makes a visual statement as well: "At a live concert we listen with our ears and see with our eyes. But we also listen with our eyes. The visual aspect is very important. When the two ensembles are spacially separated, it's easier to recognize what belongs to the mass and what is an addendum by Britten and Owen. It's easier to bring that out with two conductors." 

Benjamin Britten War Requiem (Getty Images)

English tenor Peter Pears rehearing before the premiere of Britten's War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in 1962

This hour we'll hear the Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera me from the mass. Offering a grim contrast to the Sanctus with its words "Holy holy holy" is a poem by Wilfred Owen titled "The End." The words go: "And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith: My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death. Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified. Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried."

The Agnus Dei section includes a poem sung by the tenor. The title is "At a Calvary near the Ancre," and the words express gentle resignation after the catastrophe of armed conflict: "The scribes on all the people shove and bawl allegiance to the state. But they who love the greater love lay down their life; they do not hate." 

Two souls meet in Limbo. They've met before – when one killed the other in the trenches, not out of hatred but circumstance. So goes the poem "Strange Meeting" by Wilfred Owen, who personally experienced World War I and perished in it. The words: "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. … Let us sleep now." This poem by Wilfred Owen sounds out in the "Libera me" section of the mass.

Benjamin Britten (AP)

Benjamin Britten in 1968

Benjamin Britten 
War Requiem
4. Sanctus 
5. Agnus Dei 
6. Libera me 

Banu Böke, soprano 
James Gilchrist, tenor
Erik Sohn, baritone
Coventry Cathedral Girls' Choir
Polish National Youth Choir
Les Pastoureaux
Youth Choir of St. Luke's Church in Bonn
Choir of the Bach Association Cologne
National Youth Orchestra of Germany 
French National Youth Orchestra
Conductors: Thomas Neuhoff, Daniel Spaw 

Recorded by West German Radio, Cologne (WDR) in the Cologne Philharmonie on April 6, 2018

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