Haupz Blog

... still a totally disordered mix

War Requiem

2022-03-01 — Michael Haupt

English composer Benjamin Britten was asked in 1961 to write a work for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by nazi bombs during World War II. He composed the War Requiem.

The requiem is the special kind of mass said for a deceased, primarily in Catholicism. It has a long canon of liturgical texts and widely known Gregorian chants for the same (you have heard the Dies Irae in some paraphrased form, e.g,. in the movie Nightmare Before Christmas). There is a long tradition in classical music to compose requiems, which vary considerably in size, from plain choral settings to large-scale monumental pieces.

Britten, having been commissioned, had in mind to combine the requiem topos with what had led to the devastation of Coventry Cathedral: war. He found inspiration in poems by Wilfred Owen, who had served in the Royal Army during World War I in France. He wrote those poems there before he was killed in 1918. The poems describe war as experienced by Owen, in its senseless mass-slaughtering of an entire generation.

The War Requiem is a masterpiece. The original Latin texts are interwoven with Owen's poems in a way that makes sense and "connects the dots" between the two sujets so as to spawn new associations. The large-scale composition uses soloists, choir, an additional boys' choir, and two orchestras. The first and larger of these accompanies the Latin lyrics; and the second and smaller one, the settings of Owen's poems.

It's musically beautiful, shattering to hear, hard to endure. It's an admonition. As it should be, given what it should remind of.

In 1962, the first performance took place, in Coventry Cathedral. Britten's plan had been to have soloists from Russia, England, and Germany perform - as a sign of unity. Alas, the Soviets didn't let Galina Vishnevskaya travel to the premiere. In 1963, she was allowed to come to London to participate in the recording Britten himself was conducting. The other two soloists from the premiere, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, partook as well. This recording is available here. I'll share a video of a slightly more recent performance as well (Britten is conducting here, too, but apart from Pears, there are different soloists), as it gives a better impression of the sheer scale of the work.

My hope today is that no one will ever need to feel compelled to write such a piece again.

Tags: music