Britten: War Requiem, Opus 66

Edward Benjamin Britten was born at Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on Saint Cecilia's Day, November 22, 1913, and died at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. On June 12, 1976 he had been created Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the Queen's Birthday Honors, the first musician to be elevated to the peerage. The War Requiem, commissioned for the festival to celebrate the consecration of Saint Michael's Cathedral, Coventry, was composed in 1961 (completed on December 20 that year) and first performed in the Cathedral on May 30, 1962. The soloists were Heather Harper, Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer‑Dieskau, with the 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 the composer. The first American performance took place at the Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood on July 27, 1963, Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Pro Musica Chorus of Boston, the Columbus Boychoir, and soloists Phyllis Curtin, Nicholas Di Virgilio, and Tom Krause. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the War Requiem in April 1969, when Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt conducted the Stanford University Chorus and Choir and the San Francisco Boys Chorus. Verne Sellin conducted the chamber orchestra, and the soloists were Ella Lee, George Shirley, and Delme Bryn‑Jones. The most recent performances by the Orchestra were given in Ocotber 2002, with the SFS Chorus, San Francisco Girls Chorus, Pacific Boychoir, and soloists Christine Brewer, Jerry Hadley, and William Stone; Kurt Masur conducted. The score calls for soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists; a mixed chorus; a children’s chorus (accompanied always by an organ, played by Jonathan Dimmock at these performances); an orchestra of three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, three clarinets (third doubling E‑flat clarinet and bass clarinet), two bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, piano, organ, timpani, two snare drums, tenor drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, castanets, whip, Chinese blocks, gong, bells tuned to C and F‑sharp, vibraphone, glockenspiel, antique cymbals tuned to C and F‑sharp, and strings; and a chamber orchestra consisting of flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion (timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbal, gong), harp, two violins, viola, cellos, and bass. Performance time: about eighty-four 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. The critic Hans Keller, his most effective champion in the 1940s and ’50s, at one of whose dinner parties the composer maintained that the Israelis should have lain down in front of the Arab tanks in the 1967 war, speaks of Britten's "aggressive pacifism." 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 and 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 more than 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.

Wilfred Owen was born at Plas Wilmot, Oswestry, Shropshire, on March 18, 1893, attended schools at Birkenhead and Shrewsbury, enrolled at London University, contemplated the ministry, and was both pupil and lay assistant to a clergyman in Oxfordshire. 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, 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 one week later.

It had not taken Owen much of his apprenticeship with the Reverend Mr. Wigan to realize that his future was not in the clergy. He 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. But Owen as Christian speaks better for himself. 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 boys' choir representing liturgy at its most distanced. The mixed chorus and solo soprano are accompanied by the full orchestra; the boys' choir, whose sound should be distant, by an organ. All this constitutes one group. The other 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 each bar is broken from time to time, and the little bells on F-sharp and C add a certain harmonic restlessness. Against those the chorus murmurs its prayer in rapid syllables. The music rises to a climax, sinks again to pianissimo, and then the boys sing the "Te decet hymnus" calmly, dispassionately, in meters whose irregularity seems very much not of the earth, and with violins sounding a slow echo of the bells. The opening music returns, to be suddenly broken into by the quick and agitated notes of harp, against which the tenor sings the first of the Owen tropes, "Anthem for Doomed Youth." At the second line of the sestet, "Not in the hands of boys . . .," oboe and violin bring back the “Te decet hymnus” melody. Punctuated again by the bells with their strangely unsettling dissonance, the chorus, unaccompanied, sings the "Kyrie," and on a harmonic course that carries the music from the uneasy dissonance to a peaceful close.

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 key, G minor, is that of Verdi's Dies irae, and the huge outburst of brass for the "Tuba mirum" is another bow to that earlier and great Requiem.) The brass also brings about the next interpolation, "Bugles sang," an untitled poem that exists only in draft and of which Britten uses just the first seven lines. This is assigned to the baritone and uses the fanfares with which the Dies irae began.

The 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." Owen's poem is a postscript to two lines addressed by Siegfried Sassoon to Robert Graves: "War's a joke for me and you,/While we know such dreams are true." 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." Again the chorus invokes Judgment Day, this time in heavy fortissimo. The music seems to move into the distance, then slowly the soprano intones the anguished, broken lines of the "Lacrimosa" (in Verdi's key of B‑flat minor). 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 and called "Futility." This time, and to ineffably poignant effect, Britten intercuts the two musics, brief phrases of the "Lacrimosa" punctuating the grief‑laden song. Against the tenor's last word, the two bells again sound their F‑sharp and C, and the F‑sharp‑to‑F chorale with which the Requiem aeternam ended brings the Dies irae to a close as well.

Offertorium—The boys 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, and Britten follows it. Here he also quotes himself. In 1952 he had written for Pears, Kathleen Ferrier, and himself, a Canticle, Abraham and Isaac, based on the Chester Miracle Play, and the fugue subject in the "Quam olim Abrahae" is taken from that lovely and touching work. But Wilfred Owen, too, had had his sinister say on the story of God's testing of Abraham's faith, and now it is almost without a shift of pace that the music moves into the chamber orchestra and the singing by tenor and baritone of "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 (except that the tenor, Abraham in the earlier work, is Isaac here). With the shocking turn of the poem the music returns to the now brutish sounding fugue, and as it recedes we become aware of the boys 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—after the end of Owen's first stanza, then overlapping the last two words of the second stanza, then overlapping the last words of the second and fourth lines of the last stanza—creates, with no increase in volume, 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. Most of the music in this Agnus Dei consists of alternations of segments of the scales of B minor and C major; for the tenor's haunting envoi, Britten offers a variation or extension of that—five notes of the B minor scale which can, however, also be heard as five notes of a scale of F‑sharp, then five notes of a C minor scale, with the line finally floating into silence on F‑sharp. All of it makes another version of the F‑sharp/C combination of which we hear so much in the War Requiem.

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—Verdi again—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 boys 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, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings:  The composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Highgate School Chorus, with the three soloists for whom the work was written:  Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (London)  |  Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic, Westminster Symphonic Choir, and American Boychoir, with soloists Carol Vaness, Jerry Hadley, and Thomas Hampson (Teldec)  |  Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Atalanta Boychoir, with soloists Lorna Haywood, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, and Benjamin Luxon (Telarc)

Reading:  Britten’s Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction, by Heather Wiebe(Cambridge University Press)  |  Benjamin Britten: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter (Scribner)  |  Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, edited by Donald Mitchell (California)  |  Benjamin Britten, part of the Master Musicians series, by Michael Kennedy (Schirmer)  |  The Britten Companion, edited by Christopher Palmer (Faber)  | Remembering Britten, edited by Alan Blyth (Hutchinson)