45 years ago today, the world premiere took place of one of the relatively few famous classical music pieces of the second half of the 20th century: the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten, where he used texts from the Latin Missa pro defunctis together with poems of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). (teacherken diaried on the War Requiem 2 years ago here.) Britten was a lifelong pacifist, and this work, written for the consecration of the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral, following the original's destruction in World War II, allowed Britten a big forum to express his sentiments.
The plural in this diary's title is because a thematically related Britten work also has an anniversary this month, after a fashion. This is his opera Owen Wingrave, adapted from the 1893 short story by Henry James by librettist Myfanwy Piper, and originally written on commission from BBC2 for television. The performance was recorded and taped in November 1970, and the first broadcast was on BBC2 on May 16, 1971. The work was recently revived at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. More below the flip....
The story is about a young man, Owen Wingrave, who has decided to defy his family tradition and refuse to become a soldier, while under instruction at the London military "cramming establishment" of Spencer Coyle. This is unacceptable in the extreme to the Wingrave family, who pride themselves on sending generations of soldiers into combat. Owen has to face the wrath of his family, not to mention the disdain of his intended, Kate Julian, and her mother.
Furthermore, there's a supernatural element to the story, related to an incident in the Wingrave past where a Wingrave boy refused to fight back when another boy called him a liar. The father saw this, and took the boy to a bedroom in the Manor, where he struck the boy, fatally. Soon after, the father himself was found dead in that room, but without a mark on him. Since then, no one has ever entered that room.
Tim Ashley recently wrote this article in anticipation of the recent London revival, where you see clearly that he greatly admires the work. In Michael Church's preview article, Britten himself was quoted from 1970 in a letter to a friend:
"I feel it to be one of the best things I have done, and certainly the most serious".
The reviews of the production, and also of the music, are more mixed:
I had listened to the work years ago in college, but after hearing about this new production, I gave the recording another listen. I also read James' story for the first time.
Since Britten clearly takes Owen's side and shares the character's feelings about war, one would expect this diary to say that this is truly a neglected masterpiece, all the criticisms are wrong and war-mongering, and every opera company should stage this work now in Dumbya's America without delay. I exaggerate, but you get the idea. However, it turns out that the critics do have several points about this work.
The depiction of Owen's family and the Julians is pretty one-sided, where they do express pretty loathsome sentiments. It's kind of like (bad mixing of metaphors here) a 19th-century English equivalent of the worst Freeper stereotypes, transposed into an opera. One example is when Mrs. Coyle tries to defend Owen at the Wingrave family dinner, by saying that Owen "has his scruples". The family then wails on Owen:
"Sir Philip (Owen's grandfather): Say what right has he to have scruples?"
Miss Wingrave (Owen's aunt): His not to question but obey.
Kate Julian: Might is right, the soldier's truth.
(following is overlapping of the 4 characters)
Mrs. Julian: Scruples are for milksops.
Sir Philip: Scruples are for women.
Kate: Scruples are for parsons.
Miss Wingrave: Scruples are for weaklings.
All four together: Scruples are for adolescent boys."
Pretty ugly, but the point is that the libretto stacks the deck. Donald Mitchell, the executor of the Britten-Pears Estate and the de facto keeper of the Britten flame, even unwittingly acknowledges this in his original notes to the 1971 commercial recording, but then also tries to qualify that point:
"In so far as [the Wingraves] live by slogans, and suppress their imaginations, they are less than human....We are conscious of it when the Wingraves forgo their humanity and take their stand on mindless tradition, when they also freeze into identical attitudes....At the same time, satire does not decline into caricature, and there is room, as there must be, for substantial flashes of humanity...."
With respect, I'm afraid...no, the Wingraves pretty much are caricatures. One has to look really closely for small moments that makes those characters a little more subtle. For example, the General, who at one point calls his own grandson "traitor", sings after that "scruples" section:
"What good are scruples when the enemy charges? When the garrison's dying, women, children, gasping for food and water?"
Granted, this line implicitly has war as a perpetual fact of life in Sir Philip's world, but within that constraint, that passage has some subtlety.
In a strange way, the treatment is understandable, if a little unfair. The reason is that in James' original story, we see surprisingly little of the Wingraves. Of the two Wingrave elders, it is Owen's aunt, Miss Jane Wingrave ("Miss Wingrave" in the opera), who gets the most narrative time. General Sir Philip Wingrave, the grandfather, is barely there, more of an "off-stage" presence, albeit still a viciously denouncing one. In other words, Piper and Britten had to create characters to fill out the stage, so they had license to depict as they saw fit.
There is, however, one character who shows a fair degree of complexity, in both the story and the opera: Spencer Coyle, the teacher. When Owen 'comes out' as a newly minted pacifist, Coyle objects also, more vehemently in the story than the opera, but not to the extreme point of the Wingrave family. He acknowledges later that his visit to the Wingrave manor, Paramore, is not a friendly call, but that he is on a mission to convert Owen back to the Wingrave family creed, of "pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war", to cite another literary source.
What makes Coyle more complex, and thus more interesting, is that he embodies the Voltairean epigram of "I disagree with everything you say, but....":
"What he thinks right I may deplore, but cannot conscientiously dismiss."
He is also wise enough to realize that in spite of Owen's pacifism, "the pity is you are a fighter". Coyle is smart enough to see that fighting can be something else other than physical. This contrasts with Kate's more superficial mindset (age vs. youth, after all):
"Coyle: "...to my sense, he is, in a high sense of the term, a fighting man."
Kate: "Ah let him prove it."
In the opera, this line is transposed to a conversation between Coyle and Miss Wingrave:
"Coyle: The boy has spirit, you will admit.
Miss Wingrave: No Wingrave lacks spirit.
Coyle: Then may he not be guided by his beliefs?
(snip a few lines)
Miss Wingrave: Is it not your job to encourage fighting men?
Coyle: He is, in the highest sense, a fighting man."
Coyle also somewhat wryly comments at one point:
"All my life I have taught the art of war, but for war in the family there's no answer in the books."
As Tim Ashley notes, the none-too-subtle irony is that Paramore itself is a war zone, for this ultimate "battle of the mind" between Owen and the remaining Wingraves and the Julians.
You may have noticed that so far, this diary hasn't said much about Owen himself. That is because in some strange way, he isn't totally the central character, especially in the James story, where Coyle is really the heart of plot evolution. In the opera, though, Piper and Britten give Owen some solo moments where he freely expresses his sentiments, including a setting of passages from Shelley's Queen Mab in Act I:
"War is the statesman's game, the priest's delight,
The lawyer's jest....
And to those royal murderers whose mean thrones
Are bought by crimes of treachery and gore...
Guards, garbed in blood-red livery, surround
Their palaces, participate the crimes
That force defends.....
These are the hired bravos who defend
The tyrant's throne - the bullies of his fear;
The refuse of society, the dregs
Of all that is most vile; They cajole with gold
And promises of fame the thoughtless youth
Already crushed with servitude; he knows
His wretchedness too late....
Look to thyself, priest, conqueror or prince!
Whether thy trade is falsehood..."
In Act II, in his big 'peace aria', he gives full voice, such as this excerpt:
"For peace is not lazy but vigilant,
peace is not acquiescent but searching,
peace is not weak but strong like a bird's wing
bearing its weight in the dazzling air.
Peace is not silent; it is the voice of love.
Oh you with your bugbears, your arrogance, your greed,
your intolerance, your selfish morals and petty victories,
peace is not won by your wars.
Peace is not confused, not sentimental, not afraid.
Peace is positive, is passionate, committing -
more than war itself.
Only in peace I can be free."
Well-spoken sentiments, to be sure, but this is the point of some main criticism of the opera, like Anna Picard's review: that Owen Wingrave is more of a sermon than an opera. Yet even Owen isn't 'pure' regarding fighting and violence, in moments like:
- Once in each act, he speaks of past soldiers historical and in his own ancestors, saying "I'd hang the lot."
- Act II, after he and Coyle talk of the story of that Wingrave father and boy in that past story, Owen defends the father's act: "The blow was justified! Wingraves do not refuse to fight...ever."
Musically, the opera is not Britten's most memorable, especially compared to the standards of Peter Grimes (where I can hum and sing, very badly, the opening section on demand). No really good tunes stick in one's head, or at least mine. The use of the percussion group within the orchestra is interesting, to be sure. But that's more fascinating in terms of timbre than melody, even if fitting in terms of the militaristic theme.
The opera ends in a "double dog dare you" from Kate to Owen, after she steps over the line and calls him a coward, which pushes his buttons big time. She challenges him to sleep in the "haunted room". Understandably, Owen initially refuses, but finally says 'yes'. He rightly characterizes that room as follows:
"The anger of the world is locked up there;
the horrible power that makes men fight;
now I alone must take it on,
I must go in there."
He even says that Kate can lock him in. No prizes for guessing who wins. The opera ends quietly, almost anti-climatically, no big crashing climax as Owen faces down the demon. But this is keeping with the story, where Kate realizes the folly of what she's done, but too late, as the story suddenly just ends, even if the description at the end is that Owen "looked like a young soldier on a battle-field".
Yet, as Tim Ashley noted, for political reasons if not totally musical ones, this work has resonance for now, like the War Requiem:
"We will, of course, be hearing it in the knowledge that yet more lives, military and civilian, have been wasted in Iraq, and that the voices of those opposed to military intervention have been ignored. 'Peace is not won by your wars,' Owen tells his family, adding that he would make it a crime for any politician to send men both to slaughter and be slaughtered."
Picard, in fairness, noted that the Covent Garden run fully sold out. She asserted that Britten expressed his sentiments better in the War Requiem, and I'd have to agree. There's more than an element of PC in both works, well before the term gained notoriety.
Yet in spite of all this, if the local opera company staged Owen Wingrave, would I go see it? Heck, yeah. Culture and art are often seen, in America at least, as detached and isolated from the issues of the day. The charge, especially in 'highbrow' realms like opera, is just in many ways, especially if you go to someplace like the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, where any deviation from 'tradition' is pounced upon without mercy and new works very rarely get played (admittedly for reasons of cost and scheduling, but I digress). Owen Wingrave is one opera that engaged in topical issues, if obliquely, and in the context of Vietnam, as noted in several of the articles linked to above. Topicality is always a risk with art, in dating it and rendering it potentially more vulnerable to the judgments of time. Given how humanity tends to repeat its follies, however, works like Owen Wingrave and the War Requiem can all too often lie dormant to be exhumed later, if only for a moment.