Benjamin Britten | War Requiem

“And I can find . . . nothing wrong with offering to my fellow-men music which may inspire them, which may touch them or entertain them, even educate them — directly and with intention.  On the contrary, it is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow beings.”1

Britten’s childhood home, Lowestoft, in Suffolk, England, on the North Sea coast with its sounds of seabirds, wind, and waves, would be a lifelong influence on his music.  His parents, Edith and Robert, provided musical inspiration, opening their home for evening musicales with talented musicians that included Edith singing arias and songs by classical composers.  She recognized and encouraged her son’s talent when he began composing at the age of five, and their love for music forged a special bond between them.  Britten also shared his mother’s dedication to the evangelical Low Church in Lowestoft, where he played his arrangements of music by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Frank Bridge.

Britten heard The Sea by Bridge at age 10, and he was “knocked sideways.” When Britten found his education at the Royal College of Music unsatisfying, Bridge became a beloved mentor, both in music composition and life philosophy; for many decades thereafter, he provided advice about musical technique.  During Britten’s regular visits to Bridge’s weekend cottage, he absorbed how an artist lived and thought.  Bridge’s articulate pacifism struck a sympathetic chord in him, and Britten would later write to a friend, “the early Church was pacifist.”2 His coming of age was spurred by the realization that Establishment religion did not voice any protest to the “growing dangers of political extremism which menaced society.” He distanced himself from the church of his childhood and developed his own deeply held belief in caritas (unlimited loving-kindness). His life partner, Peter Pears, would describe Britten as “an agnostic with a great love for Jesus Christ.”3

Pears, one of the 20th century’s greatest English tenors, was also Britten’s musical partner.
Their relationship lasted nearly 40 years, until Britten’s death from heart failure in Pears’s arms. As a foremost interpreter of Britten’s music, Pears revealed that “the key to his music lies in his moral point of view combined with his craving for lost innocence brought on by his increasing disillusionment with man.”  Both men committed their lives to pacifism.  After formally becoming conscientious objectors during World War II, they gave countless concerts under the auspices of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts.  These modest venues attracted small but enthusiastic audiences.  Britten and Pears also toured major cities and performed for audiences of hundreds.  After living for several years with one of Britten’s sisters, the two bought a home in Aldeburgh near the North Sea coast, reminescent of the sandy beaches and open sea of Britten’s childhood.4  Together they instituted the Aldeburgh Festival especially for the community, which thrives to this day.  They formed the English Opera Group (1951 – 1980), to premiere new operas, and the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies (now the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme).

In the 32 years since Britten’s death, media coverage of well-known people has shifted tone
dramatically.  The media left Britten’s private life largely unnoted during his lifetime; but in the
face of the 1970s’ civil rights movements, his homosexuality became the prism through which his music was too often viewed.  Yet the inner life expressed in his music transcends his sexual
orientation and reveals a complex personality anchored in spiritual depth.

Britten’s complexity was shaped by world events.  The economic depression in Britain and
increasing tensions in Europe caused several discontented intellectuals to emigrate.  W.H.
Auden, with whom Britten had collaborated on film music, moved to Brooklyn Heights in New
York City in January 1939.  Auden encouraged Britten and Pears to join his household, which
they did for a few months until finding their own apartment.  They spent the years from 1939 to 1942 giving concerts in several major cities in the United States.

During his years in the United States, Britten composed the Sinfonia da Requiem, a precursor to the War Requiem.  A few of his other major compositions during World War II (1939 – 1945) were the operas Paul Bunyan and Peter Grimes and the choral masterpieces Hymn to St. Cecilia, Ceremony of Carols, and Rejoice in the Lamb.  True to his self-definition as a working
composer, Britten accompanied Yehudi Menuhin on a recital tour of German concentration
camps in 1945.  Playing to audiences of recently freed prisoners, Britten saw the wrenching
effects of the privation they had endured.  Immediately upon his return home to New York, he
wrote the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, “setting nine poems in which death and repentance are
recurring themes.”5

World War II has gone down in history as the first war to extensively use mechanized
destruction.6  Combined with the death toll of World War I, two generations of young adults
were destroyed.  England’s recovery from economic ruin would take decades.7  In this difficult period, Britten’s output of operas, choral works, and instrumental music secured his position as one of England’s greatest composers.  But the world stage was tilting alarmingly — the
competitive East-West Cold War escalated to the brink of nuclear war, commenced by the
Korean War (1950 – 1953); the Vietnam War began (1959);8 the Berlin Wall went up to divide
families and depress the East German economy; and the Bay of Pigs conflict erupted in Cuba
(both in 1961).

In 1961, Britten was asked to create a large choral work for the consecration of the new
St. Michael’s Cathedral (also known as Coventry Cathedral), which sits near the ruins of the
bombed-out original in Coventry, England.  He chose excerpts from poems by Wilfred Owen,
who served in World War I, to set alongside the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead.  The new
cathedral offered awesome acoustics and a dramatic setting.  Architect Basil Spence had
designed it to stand near the ruins of its medieval counterpart,9 a juxtaposition of devastation and reconciliation that inspired Britten’s deep outrage and compassion as he created the War
Requiem.  At the May 1962 premiere, the soloists were soprano Heather Harper (the replacement for famed Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskya, who was not allowed to leave Russia), the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Peter Pears — each intended to represent a nation most affected by World War II.  On the podiums were Meredith Davis and Britten himself.  Britten dedicated the choral masterpiece to four of his friends killed in the conflict.

“Already 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
dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms.”  These words are by poet Wilfred Owen, who viewed war as “a crime against nature, a crime against humanity’s potential for good, a crime against creation itself.”10  He served on the front lines, where he won a Military Cross, was hospitalized with shell shock, and returned to the front “because he felt there he would be in a stronger position to cry out as a poet against the war and to speak for his dying comrades.”11  At the age of 25, he was killed in action one week before World War I ended.

The War Requiem

Britten prefaced the score of the War Requiem with a quote from the preface that Owen wrote for his book of poetry (published posthumously):  “My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The
Poetry is in the pity.  All a poet can do is to warn.”12  In this thought-provoking work, composer and poet challenge us to comprehend the consequences of “the barbarism more or less awake in mankind”13 and to mobilize our better selves.

The War Requiem, a monument to both world wars, is constructed on three levels:  (1) baritone and tenor soloists, and small orchestra to represent piercing irony; (2) soprano soloist, chorus, and large orchestra to represent the ritual invocation of God’s mysterious presence; and (3) children and organ to represent innocent hope.  Overall, the work represents the search for “a vision of eternal peace which warring man cannot, of himself, achieve.”14

The opening movement, “Requiem aeternam,” begins with an urgent choral prayer for peace,
issuing from a desolate landscape in which bells repeatedly sound an unsettling C–F# tritone.15 Ethereal children’s voices sing phrases that begin and end with one or the other tritone note, but perfect fourths carry the text, transforming their song into one of hope for peace.  The choral prayer returns, darker-sounding this time.  Childhood innocence is lost.

The tenor soloist asks, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” — lines from Owen’s
“Anthem for Doomed Youth.”  The poem portrays boys among the slaughtered in whose eyes
“shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.”  In the portrayal of “wailing shells” with flute and
clarinet, we hear one of many examples of Britten’s use of onomatopoeia in the War Requiem.
The “Kyrie eleison” returns, permeated by the tritone, which unsettles the movement’s final Fmajor chord.

The second movement, “Dies irae,” portrays human pride disguised in magisterial robes.
Owen’s poetry uncloaks pride to reveal man-made hell, and bugles fill the air with sadness.
Boys are turned prematurely into men, walking “quite friendly up to Death” (from the poem
“The Next War”), followed by a tender setting of “Recordare Jesu pie,” in which flutes evoke a
parting dance of childhood.  In an ironic juxtaposition of a weapon’s awful force with the Day of Judgment, the poem “Sonnet:  On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action” is sung by the baritone soloist representing a German soldier.  The “long black arm” was
Germany’s mobile howitzer Big Bertha, capable of firing a 2,200-pound shell more than nine
miles.  Britten intersperses the Latin text with Owen’s poem “Futility,” creating an image of all
humanity mourning as a soldier longs for the sun’s rays to restore life to a fallen comrade.  The
movement ends in a whispered prayer for pity.

The third movement, “Offertorium,” begins with the children singing in the style of medieval
plainsong, supported by hypnotic organ cluster-chords — sounds that revive a distant glimmer of hope.  The chorus enthusiastically recalls God’s promise to Abraham to spare his son, yet the reference to the standard-bearer Saint Michael evokes images of soldiers bearing national flags in war.16  Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” recounts the story of Abraham and Isaac with a wrenching twist:  no son will be spared.  Britten uses musical
structures from his Canticle II (1952), in which he was sympathetic to Abraham’s plight under
God’s demand to sacrifice “beauty, youth, and the future.”17  In the War Requiem, Britten sets
Owen’s poem in which Abraham defies God and kills his son Isaac rather than the ram, taking
Isaac’s side in a call to end sacrifice.  The chorus concludes this movement with a barely audible chant, humanity’s optimism deflated.  “Here is one of the strongest revelations of the spiritual heart of the War Requiem parable:  God offers salvation, but Man has free will to reject His salvation and to bring about all the evil consequences of such rejection.”18

In the fourth movement, “Sanctus,” the C–F# tritone shimmers.  Church bells seem to conflate
with Owen’s “passing bells” from the first movement to create a more ceremonial tone in the
percussion instrument parts and the soprano solo.  The Eastern temple sounds that Britten used to suggest the remoteness of peace reflect his study of Indonesian gamelan music.  But the aftermath of war weighs this movement down, lifted only with effort in the chorus’s fierce chant, “Pleni sunt coeli et terra.”  In Owen’s poem “The End,” Earth speaks the bleak phrase, “It is death.”  The out-of-sync orchestra and chorus tell us the devastating truth of war:  no blazing hosannas can glorify scars, assuage tears, renew life, or annul death.

In the fifth movement, “Agnus Dei,” the consoling Latin prayer integrates with Owen’s poem
“At a Calvary Near Ancre,”19 in which the church and state promotion of violence meets
resistance.  The resistor is one of millions of World War I soldiers who initially believed that war “brought them into a special relationship with Christ,”20 who represented for them the homeland and its values.  The tenor’s repeated “Dona nobis pacem” and the chorus’s plea for eternal peace are bound together with a melodic ostinato expressing the longing for forgiveness and peace.

The sixth movement, “Libera me,” begins with a tortured lament and accelerates to a fiery “Dies irae.”  A long diminuendo then sets the mood for the momentous poem “Strange Meeting,”21 sung by the tenor and baritone soloists.  Their words, accompanied by chilling chords in the strings, enact a poignant exchange between two dead soldiers from opposite sides in the war, one who has killed the other, but both felled by “the truth untold — the pity of war.”  Their resigned spirits repeat the trance-like phrase “Let us sleep now,” while the children, chorus, and soprano soloist invoke a Biblical image of paradise, where angels receive our fallen soldiers and lay them to rest.  The tritone returns, and nothing feels secure.  Yet Britten gives us an intensely moving soundscape of reconciliation, as he joins all three soloists, the children’s and adult choruses, and the two orchestras in the final movement.

The War Requiem is for those who survive.  Owen did not expect his poetry to console his own
generation.  Forty-four years after Owen’s death, Britten composed the music for maximum
effect.  Its greatness — musical onomatopoeia, arresting truths, and the irreconcilable pairing of ageless faith with humankind’s soul-destroying acts — builds monumentally to the question:  How can neighbors and nations redeem their humanity, honor those sacrificed to war, and live in peace?

1 Benjamin Britten: The Spiritual Dimension, by Graham Elliott, Oxford University Press, 2006.
2 Elliott.
3 Elliott.
4 Benjamin Britten:  Pictures from a Life 1913-1976, compiled by Donald Mitchell and John Evans, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978.
5 Master Musicians:  Britten, by Michael Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 1993.
6 World War II resulted in more than 70 million documented deaths, mostly civilians, and cost one trillion 1944 U.S. dollars.  Some of the massively destructive inventions included jet aerial bombs, chemical and atomic weapons, ballistic missiles, heavy artillery, and armored tanks.
7 Lowestoft, Britten’s childhood home, was the most heavily bombed town in the United Kingdom based on population, because German bombers used it as navigation point.
8 The Korean War (also known as “the forgotten war”) resulted in at least 54,000 U.S. casualties and cost $50 billion.  The 16-year Vietnam War would claim the lives of nearly 9 million U.S. service personnel.
9 In an 11-hour firestorm of bombs on November 14, 1940, German planes destroyed 60,000 buildings in the city of Coventry and left the 14th-century cathedral a pile of rubble, because the town had changed its manufacturing output from bikes and autos to munitions.
10 Requiem for War:  The Life of Wilfred Owen, by Arthur Orrmont, Four Winds Press, N.Y., 1967.
11 Orrmont.
12 Britten, by Christopher Headington, Holmes & Meier Publishers, N.Y., 1981.
13 From the Britten-Pears Foundation website http://www.brittenpears.org/?page=britten/works/commentary.html.
14 Elliott.
15 The tritone is an interval of three whole tones (an augmented fourth).  The medieval church forbade its use in plainsong and early polyphonic music, calling it “the devil in music.”
16 “[Saint] Michael is also a reminder of the first and arguably most important act of force in human history; it was his sword that expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise.”  Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War, by
Allen J. Frantzen, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
17 “Tears for Abraham:  The Chester Play of Abraham and Isaac and Antisacrifice in Works by Wilfred Owen, Benjamin Britten, and Derek Jarman,” by Allen J. Frantzen, in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies #31, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 2001.
18 At the Westminster Abbey service following Britten’s death, Pears read from the Anglo-Saxon poem known as “Genesis 22,” the story of Abraham and Isaac, for its relevance to their shared belief that sons should be spared from the patriarchal fervor for war.
19 The Battle of the Ancre was the last act of the Battle of the Somme (July to November 1916), one of the largest and bloodiest recorded, with more than 1.5 million casualties.  At the point when the battle of the Ancre could have been considered an Allied victory, a politically motivated lieutenant general drove his troops to make further attacks, which were unsuccessful.  Owen fought near the Ancre River during the year in which he wrote this poem.
20 Bloody Good, by Frantzen.
21 “Strange Meeting” was found in more than one version among Owen’s papers, classified under the theme “Foolishness of War.”  Britten used the version published the year after the poet’s death in Wheels:  An Anthology of Poetry (4th cycle).

– Carol Talbeck