Brian Kay's Introduction to Benjamin Britten's War Requiem
I well remember smuggling my tranny into my study at school on May 30th, 1962, to listen to the broadcast of the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem and being somewhat bemused by what was clearly a muddled premiere of a complex work. Two years later, by which time I was a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, we performed the work with Britten conducting (he kindly signed my full score!). Many years later, as chorus master to the young Simon Rattle, I worked further on the War Requiem, before being asked to prepare the mighty Huddersfield Choral Society in the same work. My most treasured memory of it was when we performed it in Huddersfield town hall on the night that the six o’clock news had announced that the Berlin wall was to be demolished. So the work has always been an important part of my life.
It was on November 14th, 1940 that the Luftwaffe carried out an operation called ‘Moonlight Sonata’, with 500 planes carpet-bombing the city of Coventry and leaving only 31 buildings standing. Hundreds were killed and the operation was to have a huge and awful effect on the morale of the whole country.
Coventry decided to build a new cathedral, the old one having been left as a shell, and it was the architect Basil Spence who won the competition and called in Graham Sutherland to create the huge high altar tapestry of Christ rising, and John Piper to design the glass. The total cost was to be £985,000 and its grand opening clearly called for a major work in celebration.
Britten had considered memorial works to commemorate the Hiroshima attack and the death of Gandhi though nothing came of either. He always believed that writing a requiem should be the pinnacle of a composer’s output. He was honoured to accept this commission as it gave him an opportunity to make a major public statement about his pacifist beliefs.
He was a passionate pacifist and humanitarian – along with fellow composer Michael Tippett. As Britten said: “The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being a professional composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction.” The result was to become the one musical masterwork we possess with overt pacifist meanings.
Britten came up with a new concept for a requiem, bringing together massive forces – a large choir, full-sized symphony orchestra, 3 soloists, a separate chamber ensemble and boys choir and organ.
He had the inspired idea of combining the Latin text of the requiem mass with the English war poetry of Wilfred Owen. “But they who love the greater love lay down their life, they do not hate” – as Owen did on November 4th 1918, exactly one week before the signing of the armistice.
Owen originally thought of himself as a pacifist but he joined up in 1915 and began writing about his wartime experiences. In 1917 he was badly concussed on the Somme battlefield and spent several days in a shell crater alongside the mangled corpse of a friend. He was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and while recovering in hospital he met Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, both of whom encouraged him to write poetry. In August 1918 he was declared fit enough to return to the western front where he was awarded the Military Cross. But he was killed by machine gun fire and it was Sassoon, after Owen’s death, who arranged for the publication of the complete poems.
As Britten quotes Wilfred Owen at the front of the score:
” My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity … all a poet can do today is warn.” This too is the message of Benjamin Britten, the musical poet.
So Britten creates an intriguing shape to his War Requiem, spatially separating the three main performing groups – the full chorus with the full orchestra (joined by the soprano soloist) who sing the Latin words of the requiem mass, the two male soloists singing the Owen poems with the chamber ensemble, and the boys’ choir and organ – carefully placed at a distance, adding angelic words of consolation.
Britten’s idea was to have – for the first performance – three soloists representing the three nations who suffered most in the great war – Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, English tenor Peter Pears and the German baritone Detrich Fischer-Dieskau.
The Russian Ministry of Culture forbade Vishnevskaya from taking part: “How can you, a Soviet woman, stand next to a German and an Englishman and perform a political work?” Heather Harper stood in at very short notice for the premiere, and Vishnevskaya sang later on Britten’s classic recording.
The first performance was a disaster – as Britten said: “orchestra second-rate, chorus deplorable, acoustic lunatic and cathedral staff waging Trollopian clerical battles, but with modern weapons”!
Britten was wary of conducting that first performance so he shared the honours with Meredith Davies (ex St Albans and Hereford Cathedral organist and conductor of the Royal Choral Society) and thereby established a system of joint conductorship. Britten and Davies could not think what to say as they left the platform, until Britten finally said “The idea was good”. He was clearly heartbroken by the awfulness of the performance. As Pears said: “the audience shuffled out in stunned silence".
On the other hand, Fischer-Dieskau was so moved and upset by the work and by the last section – strange meeting – that Pears couldn’t get him out of the choir stalls. As Dieskau said: “I was completely undone and I didn’t know where to hide my face … dear friends and past sufferings arose in my mind.”
Britten had written to Dieskau when trying to persuade him to take part: “I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale requiem mass (in memory of those of all nations who died in the last war) and I am interspersing the Latin text with many poems of the great English poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the first war. These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the war. They are, of course, in English. These poems will be set for tenor and bass and they will need singing with the utmost beauty, intensity and sincerity.”
Following the première, Britten conducted his own recording – a classic which sold in huge numbers. As the boys choir he used the choir of Highgate School and the two senior altos sitting next to each other on the front row were the young John Rutter and John Tavener! Since then, the work has had its ups and downs, with critics voicing different opinions at various times. The composer Stravinsky famously said: “To dare to criticise the War Requiem in Britain would be as if one has failed to stand up for ‘God save the Queen’!”
Fifty years on the War Requiem is established as a great and important masterpiece with its remarkable juxtaposition of texts and interwoven musical effects. Owen’s dark and distressing war poems are wonderfully balanced against the words of consolation in the Latin text – a clever interweaving of secular and sacred. The contrast in texts is matched by the contrast between the might and majesty of the full orchestra and the relative delicacy of texture in the chamber ensemble.
Britten wanted to be remembered more for this work than for any other –“not because of the music … but because of the message contained within, which I hope will be used for many years to come.”
© Brian Kay 2017