Britten’s War Requiem

The London Symphony Orchestra at the White Light Festival on Sunday, October 23.

The most creative, haunting thing about Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is the text, juxtaposing liturgical Latin against verses by war poet Wilfred Owen. It’s an audacious choice, sometimes subverting, sometimes embracing the religious significance of the traditional requiem. The music itself doesn’t always rise to the level of that simple, provocative brilliance, but it has does have moments of vivid text-painting and unsettling tonal shifts and a genuinely profound finale, gorgeously lush and then heartbreakingly stark. Even if its extramusical credentials weren’t impeccable, War Requiem might well have entered the classical music pantheon.

That’s an irrelevant hypothetical, though, as those credentials truly are unimpeachable (as Igor Stravinsky once infamously sniped). The work premiered at the 1962 reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the blitz of World War II, and the first tenor and baritone soloists were, significantly, an Englishman and a German. Owen, an enlisted officer, is perhaps the greatest British war poet (his blisteringly anti-Romantic “Dulce et Decorum Est” had an enormous impact on me when I was a teenager), and his legacy was guaranteed, in the cruelest possible manner, when he was killed in action just a week before the Armistice. As for Britten, he was determined to use the cathedral commission to express his deeply held pacifist beliefs—which were controversial back in the 1940s but far more palatable in the 1960s. With all those elements at play, it’s no wonder that War Requiem immediately established itself as an audience favorite, bewailing war and pleading for peace and reconciliation without the messiness of confronting any specific conflict.

To me, though, the work’s understated political content is far less interesting than the implicit religious commentary. In the very first movement, when the chorus petitions for eternal rest—”Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine”—the tenor soloist responds viciously with Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth”:

What passing-bells for those 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 now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires. . . .

The effect is bitterly ironic. Britten’s parodic trumpet fanfares and the martial rhythms of the chorus’s “Dies irae” only intensify the feeling that a requiem is, at best, too little, too late—a pathetically inadequate response to the horrors of the world. From there, Britten sets a fugue on “Quam olim Abrahae” against Owen’s “Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” in which Abram declines the angel’s offer of a replacement sacrifice (“the Ram of Pride”) and goes ahead and kills his son along with “half the seed of Europe, one by one.” By the time Britten reaches the “Sanctus,” typically the most joyful movement of a requiem mass, and sets it with ear-piercingly jangly bells and belligerent octave leaps from the soprano soloist, I’m completely ill at ease. War Requiem is a world away from the comforting warmth of, say, Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem. It is angry and aggrieved and deeply disquieting—which I mean as a compliment, of course. It’s appropriate for a war requiem to be disquieting.

But it’s that very quality that makes War Requiem an odd choice for the White Light Festival, which celebrates “music’s transcendent capacity to illuminate our larger interior universe.” To my ears, War Requiem actively resists transcendence in favor of something much more fleshy and ragged. The tenor and baritone soloists—singing Owen’s raw, biting poems with the accompaniment of a small chamber ensemble—often sound, both musically and textually, as though they’re contradicting the liturgy sung by the soprano soloist and choirs, denying its power to elevate, highlighting its deficiencies. The work doesn’t just memorialize those killed in war; it is at war with itself.

Which is not to say that the performance Sunday wasn’t glorious. Gianandrea Noseda led the London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, and American Boychoir in a robust, passionate interpretation of the work. The dynamic control was masterful, and the choirs’ blend and tone and especially their enunciation were absolutely perfect. All three soloists were stellar, but as good as Sabina Cvilak and Simon Keenlyside were (very), I’m particularly fond of tenor Ian Bostridge, who gracefully transitioned from the tenor’s more naïve passages (Isaac’s dialogue, for example) to the acrid, angry passages with keen expressivity and a steadfastly lovely voice.

Everything came together most movingly in the final movement, “Libera Me,” which uses Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” in which two soldiers from opposite sides encounter each other on some other plane. They have both died, of course, and when the poem trails off—”Let us sleep now . . .”—the boys’ choir enters singing the “In Paradisum.” They’re joined by the adult chorus in what is easily the most exuberant section of the work, a richly harmonic canon, sumptuous and beautiful and, at last, transcendent. This is Paradise. But then it all fades away, never quite resolving. The bells toll. The choir repeats its plaintive, hushed “Requiem” chant, and Paradise is gone.

On Sunday, after the final notes died away, Noseda held the silence for thirty, maybe even forty seconds before lowering his hands to accept applause. That kind of abiding silence is extraordinarily rare in a concert hall—normally someone will start clapping immediately—and I wonder whether it happened in part because War Requiem leaves you with such bleakness. Far from filling you with white light, it hollows you out. You need a moment in the aftermath to warm yourself again.

2 Replies to “Britten’s War Requiem”

  1. I recall that you also attended a performance of Britten’s War Requiem during your foreign study in 1999. I went back to your journal to read what you wrote about it at that time. As with this experience, you mentioned the wonderful solos, singling out Ian Bostridge as tenor. (You should link his name in this review to the review you wrote about his recital performance last year.) I would be interested to know how this Requiem compared with your experience of it twelve years ago. Just as with Shakespeare, a truly great work of art can be experienced multiple times and still have something new to say. This sounds like such a powerful work of art that I imagine it could be heard many times and never pale.


  2. I honestly don’t remember much about the 1999 performance I saw in London beyond being impressed with Bostridge and deeply touched by the work itself. I need to dig up my old study-abroad journal!


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