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War Requiem

Benjamin Britten’s pacifist masterpiece War Requiem, premiered in 1962, is among the greatest settings of a liturgical text, linking past and present by interweaving poems on the horrors of war by WWI poet Wilfred Owen.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born at Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on November 22, 1913; died at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976
  • Year completed: 1961
  • First performance: May 30, 1962, at Saint Michael’s Cathedral, Coventry, England. Soloists: soprano Heather Harper, tenor Peter Pears, and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with Coventry Festival Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Melos Ensemble, and the boys of Holy Trinity, Leamington, and Holy Trinity, Stratford. The chorus and full orchestra were conducted by Meredith Davies and the chamber orchestra by Benjamin Britten.
  • First BSO performance: (American premiere) July 27, 1963, at Tanglewood. Erich Leinsdorf conducted, with soloists soprano Phyllis Curtin, tenor Nicholas DiVirgilio, and baritone Tom Krause, the Chorus Pro Musica, Alfred Nash Patterson, director, and the Columbus Boychoir, Donald Bryant, director
  • Approximate duration: 85 minutes

Twice in Benjamin Britten’s life, public awareness of his person and his work advanced dramatically, explosively. The first time was in 1945, when his opera Peter Grimes was produced for the postwar reopening of Sadler’s Wells Theater in London. The second time followed the premiere at Coventry and the subsequent series of performances all across Europe and North America of the War Requiem. Except to those provincials who thought that milky pastoral was the only idiom appropriate for an Englishman and who also found the young Britten too clever by half, the triumph of Peter Grimes marked, more than the confirmation of a prodigious talent, a moment for hope that England, for the first time since the death of Henry Purcell in 1695, had produced a composer of international stature. That the premiere of Peter Grimes took place just one month after the end of the war in Europe heightened the emotional force of the occasion. To put matters into perspective, Britten had already attracted considerable attention within the profession as the composer of, among other things, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the Rimbaud song cycle Les Illuminations, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, A Ceremony of Carols, and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and String Orchestra, as well as showing impressive aptitude for the still rather new challenges of film music.

The impact seventeen years later of the War Requiem was wider and deeper by far. Britten, approaching fifty, had become since Peter Grimes the celebrated composer of several more operas, including The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; of the Spring Symphony, Saint Nicolas, and Noye’s Fludde; and of song cycles on texts by Donne, Hardy, and Hölderlin. He had become an artist whose every new utterance was awaited with the most lively interest and the highest expectations.

The War Requiem, moreover, was tied to a pair of events—the destruction of Coventry Cathedral in an air raid during the night of November 14-15, 1940, and its reconsecration more than twenty-one years later—that were heavily freighted with history and emotion. Its first performance was planned as an international event with respect both to participants and audience. Most important, the War Requiem was a weighty and poignant statement on a subject of piercingly urgent concern to much of humankind. For 1961 was the year of the Bay of Pigs and of the construction of the Berlin Wall; both that year and in 1962, United States involvement in Vietnam increased frighteningly.

Britten was a lifelong pacifist; as early as 1937 he had composed a Pacifist March for a Peace Pledge Union concert. It was a combination of his pacifism, his loyalty to left-wing causes, and his despair at Stanley Baldwin’s and later Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler that drove him to follow W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood to the United States in 1939. His companion on that journey—and for life, as it turned out—was the tenor Peter Pears, whom he had met three years before, at which time they had given a benefit recital for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. What sent Britten back to England in spring 1942 was the chance discovery, in a Los Angeles bookstore, of a volume of poetry by George Crabbe and, a few days later, of an article by E.M. Forster on Crabbe. “To think of Crabbe is to think of England,” Forster began. That sentence changed Britten’s life. It made inescapable his feeling that he must go home, and it was in Crabbe’s The Borough that he found the material for Peter Grimes.

The theme of Peter Grimes is the collision of innocence with wickedness and corruption, innocence outraged. It is the theme that dominates Britten’s life work. The composition of the War Requiem marks Britten’s readiness to treat the topic explicitly rather than as a parable or in symbolic form. Twice, Britten had planned projects, both aborted for external or technical reasons, that would have been spiritual preparations to the War Requiem—an oratorio Mea culpa after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and a work to commemorate the assassination of Gandhi in 1948. In a sense, the commission from Coventry was what he was waiting for, what he needed.

Britten conceived the bold plan of confronting the Missa pro defunctis, a timeless, suprapersonal ritual in a dead language, with nine poems by Wilfred Owen, words in English written in 1917 and 1918 in hospital and in the trenches. As a parallel gesture, the War Requiem, composed though it was for a great public occasion and in honor, as it were, of a public edifice, also bears a private dedication “in loving memory” to four of Britten’s friends. Three of these—Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve; David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy; and Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve—were killed in the dread sequel to the war in which Owen lost his life. The fourth, Captain Piers Dunkerley of the Royal Marines, became increasingly unstable after the war and committed suicide in 1959. A significant symbol Britten built into the design was to provide roles at the first performance for singers of three nationalities, the English tenor Peter Pears, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. In the event, Ekaterina Furtseva, the Soviet Minister of Culture, would not let Vishnevskaya go to Coventry: as Britten wrote to E.M. Forster, “The combination of ‘Cathedral’ and Reconciliation with W. Germany…was too much for [the Soviets].” Vishnevskaya was eventually allowed to take part in the first recording of the War Requiem and sang in many performances after that.*

It was Rupert Brooke, who died on a hospital ship in 1915 at the age of twenty-seven, who won the most immediate fame among the British poets of the 1914 war. For half a century now, it is Wilfred Owen who has been recognized as the most eloquent, as well as the most resourceful, of the so-called war poets. Owen was born at Plas Wilmot, Oswestry, Shropshire, on March 18, 1893. In 1915 he joined the army, a company called the Artists’ Rifles. From December 1916 he was on active service in France with the Manchester Regiment; he spent five months of 1917 at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Scotland and, after several months of service in England, was again posted to France. He wrote verse as a boy, fluently and in emulation of Keats and, to some degree, Tennyson. Ironically, it was the war that freed his poetic gift, so that, taking stock on the last day of 1917, he was able to write to his mother: “I go out of this year a poet, my dear mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet. I am started.” In October 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross, and on November 4 he was machine-gunned to death while trying to get his company across the Sambre Canal. The war ended just one week later.

Owen distrusted the church as an institution and disliked most of its agents, military chaplains in particular, whom he saw as betraying the message of Christ. Here are words from a letter written to his mother from the 13th Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly on the Somme in May 1917:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never 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. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored, and I think pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skillfully and successfully indeed....And am I not myself a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience? … Christ is literally in “no man’s land.” There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

In Peter Grimes, the Spring Symphony, Billy Budd, and Gloriana, Britten had shown with what zest he could write for large forces, though in fact his ever-astonishing resourcefulness with restricted resources in the Serenade, the Nocturne, the chamber operas, and some of the works involving children had come to seem even more characteristic and impressive. Now, in the War Requiem, he drew on forces larger and more complex than in any previous work of his. The basic division of the performers is into two groups, reflecting the dual source of the words, which stand in a relation of text (the Latin Missa pro defunctis) and commentary (the nine Owen poems). The Latin text is the province essentially of the large mixed chorus, but from this there is spillover in two opposite directions, the solo soprano representing a heightening of the choral singing at its most emotional, the children’s choir representing liturgy at its most distanced. The mixed chorus and solo soprano are accompanied by the full orchestra; the children’s choir, whose sound should be distant, by an organ. All this constitutes one group.

The other group consists of the tenor and baritone soloists, whose province is the series of Owen songs and who are accompanied by the chamber orchestra. It is well to mention at this point three compositions whose presence is felt behind the War Requiem. First we have the two great Passion settings of Johann Sebastian Bach, which, with their design of text plus commentary and the articulation of that design through textural and other compositional means, provided Britten with an important model. Then we have the Verdi Requiem. In an article published in 1968 in the British magazine Tempo, Malcolm Boyd analyzed Britten’s indebtedness to that work, an indebtedness entered into not for want of originality but to establish a connection with the great tradition.

Requiem aeternam—The orchestra represents stability, though the steady gait of four beats to the bar is broken from time to time by fives and threes, and the little bells on F-sharp and C add a certain harmonic restlessness. The chorus murmurs its prayer in rapid syllables, and the children sing the “Te decet hymnus” dispassionately, in meters whose irregularity seems very much not of the earth. The opening music returns, to be suddenly broken into by the quick and agitated notes of harp, against which the tenor sings Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” The chorus, unaccompanied, sings the “Kyrie,” and on a harmonic course that carries the music from the unease of the F-sharp/C dissonance to a peaceful close in F major.

Dies irae—This is the longest text, therefore the longest musical section as well. Distant fanfares bring the war scene before us, then chorus and orchestra in hushed staccato begin to paint the picture of the Day of Judgment. The brass also brings about the baritone’s “Bugles sang,” an untitled poem that exists only in draft.

Solo soprano is heard for the first time at the “Liber scriptus.” In contrast to the majesty of her phrases, a semi-chorus timidly asks, “Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?” A snare drum breaks into the quiet final cadence of the “Rex tremendae majestatis,” and tenor and baritone together sing the bitterly cheery “The Next War.” The rat-tat of that duet disappears into silence; then with great solemnity the altos begin the “Recordare.” At “Confutatis maledictis” the music springs again into a fierce allegro, and that malediction is suddenly brought near as a brutal cannonade on the kettledrums introduces six lines from Owen’s “Sonnet—On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought Into Action.” The soprano intones the anguished, broken lines of the “Lacrimosa.” Flute and cymbal and shuddering violins, all as quiet as possible, make a screen against which the tenor whispers his “Move him into the sun,” a poem from the summer of 1918 called “Futility.”

Offertorium—The children begin this movement, the full chorus entering at the invocation of Saint Michael. To set “Quam olim Abrahae” as a fugue is an old tradition. Here he also quotes his own 1952 Canticle, Abraham and Isaac, based on the Chester Miracle Play. But Wilfred Owen, too, had had his sinister say on the story of God’s testing of Abraham’s faith in his “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” It is perhaps the most inspired of Britten’s textual connections. The music for “When lo! an angel called him out of heaven” is the voice-of-God music from the Canticle. With the shocking turn of the poem the music returns to the now brutish sounding fugue, and we become aware of the children serenely intoning the “Hostias.”

Sanctus—Against the whirring of high-pitched percussion, the soprano declaims the opening words. Her style is vocal in the grandest manner; the chorus, chanting softly on monotones, seems to want to deny the very possibility of such a style, but as layer upon layer is added, the music builds a huge crescendo of wonder and praise. The “Hosanna” is brilliant, the “Benedictus,” again with the soprano, more conversational. Britten puts the commentary, “The End,” after the liturgical music is done.

Agnus Dei—Against hushed sixteenth-notes, five of them to a bar, the tenor sings “At a Calvary near the Ancre”; the chorus, using the music of the tenor’s accompaniment, sings the Agnus Dei. Britten’s timing of these quiet choral interventions creates a subtle heightening of intensity in the unfolding of the song/chant. When the music appears to be over, with the chorus, barely audible, holding the final sound of “sempiternam,” the tenor crosses the language border to add his own “Dona nobis pacem.” This prayer for peace closes the Agnus Dei in the Ordinary of the Mass but not in the Mass for the Dead; the textual variant here is Britten’s own.

Libera me—The War Requiem is full of marches, threatening, ugly Mahlerian nightmare marches, and this final prayer begins with one of them. What the basses play after the introductory measures of the drums is a variant of the music that accompanied “What Passing-Bells” in the first movement. The chorus keens its plea, the music gathers speed and sonority up to the explosion on “ignem,” the soprano stammers her “Tremens factus sum ego.” The Dies irae returns and builds up to an outcry larger and more piercing than any we have experienced so far. After that, all physical energy is spent, and finally all that is left is a chord of B-flat major, marked by Britten “pp cold.” Against this, the tenor begins the final interpolation, “Strange Meeting,” the poem most often cited as the summit of Owen’s achievement. As both singers interweave their lines on the words, “Let us sleep now”—these were an afterthought of Owen’s—the children add their gentle “In paradisum deducant te Angeli,” gradually drawing the full chorus, the soprano, and the orchestra into their music. They themselves withdraw from the mounting mass of sound, finally to re-enter with the first words we heard, “Requiem aeternam dona eis.” Their notes are F-sharp and C. The great liturgy and the personal anguish of one poet-soldier have merged into one music. And now we hear for the last time that mysterious choral progression with bells, the progression from the slightly acid unrest of the F-sharp/C tritone to the quiet of the closing chord of F major: “Requiescant in pace. Amen.” The last word must go to Peter Pears, the artist who, after its creator, knew and understood the War Requiem most profoundly: “It isn’t the end, we haven’t escaped, we must still think about it, we are not allowed to end in a peaceful dream.”

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1979, and after that of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Oxford University Press has published three compilations of his program notes, devoted to symphonies, concertos, and the great works for chorus and orchestra.

The score of the War Requiem calls for soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists; a mixed chorus; a boys’ chorus (accompanied always by an organ); a full orchestra; and a chamber orchestra. The full orchestra includes 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, piano, organ, timpani, 2 side drums, tenor drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, castanets, whip, Chinese blocks, gong, bells, vibraphone, glockenspiel, antique cymbals, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The chamber orchestra accompanying the tenor and baritone soloists consists of flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet (in B-flat and A), bassoon, horn, timpani, side drum, bass drum, cymbal, gong, harp, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass.