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I hope it’ll make people think a bit.
- Benjamin Britten
My Subject is War, and the pity of War.  
The Poetry is in the pity…
All a poet can do today is warn.
- Wilfred Owen

Benjamin Britten wrote his masterpiece, the War Requiem, on a commission to celebrate the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral (St. Michaels).  The original Cathedral built during the 14th and 15th centuries was destroyed during the German blitz in 1940.  

The commission gave Britten the complete freedom to choose what type of piece he wanted to compose.  He settled on using the traditional Latin Requiem Mass (minus the Tract and Gradual) and the war poetry of Wilfred Owen.  He started composed the work in the year 1961 and finished it in January 1962.  The premiere took place on May 30, 1962 (a day after Sir Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam was premiered written for the same occasion) in the new cathedral.

Many composers would have taken the opportunity of such an auspicious occasion to provide a large scale celebratory work.  Not Britten however, it gave him the chance to make a public statement of his anti-war convictions.   The work is dedicated to four friends of Britten and his life-partner Peters Pears: Roger Burney, David Gill and Michael Halliday who died during the war and Piers Dunkerley, who survived the war but committed suicide in 1959 two months before his wedding.

Britten composed the solo parts with three particular voices in mind, Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone).  He chose Russian, British and German soloists with the intention that a spirit of unity would result, however, the Soviet government did not allow Galina Vishnevskaya to travel to England for the premier, and Heather Harper took her place.  The Full Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra which premiered the work were the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Meredith Davis and the Melos Ensemble (chamber orchestra) conducted by the composer.  

The work calls for three vocal soloists (Soprano, Tenor and Baritone), Boy’s Choir, Mixed Chorus, Full Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra and Organ.  These forces are divided into three groups which alternate and interact with each other throughout the work.  The soprano solo and full chorus sings the Latin Requiem text accompanied by the full orchestra.  The boy’s choir also sings sections of the Latin Mass accompanied by the organ (Britten recommends that this group be placed as far away from the full orchestra as possible.)  The tenor and baritone soloists sing the Wilfred Owen poems accompanied by the chamber orchestra.

A unifying motive in the entire work is the interval of a tritone (The Devil’s Interval), it is sung whenever the text refers to rest, however it is most likely meant to signify that there is no rest to be found. The tritone is an interval, that when two tones are played together they cry for resolution, so there is always expectation that the sound will come to an end. You’ve probably heard the interval before: for those of you who watch The Simpsons the opening credits start with a tritone sung to the words “THE SIMP-sons” and Maria fr West Side story on “MA-RI-a”.  In these examples the two tones of the tritone are sung separately on the first two syllables of the phrase or words followed by a resolution on the third syllable.  

The War Requiem consists of 6 movements.

1. Requiem aeternam
This movement is approx 10 minutes long consisting of the full Introit Text (Requiem aeternam), the poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and a concluding Kyrie.

The work opens with the chorus’ sections singing hushed repetitions of the words “Requiem aeternam dona eis” against a stark contrasting orchestral accompaniment.  Through the orchestral accompaniment a lone bell is heard playing the note that the first two chorus’ sections (Sopranos and Tenors) will enter on, an f-sharp.  The orchestra re-enters and we once again hear the lone bell this time playing the C (these two notes make up a tritone) that the altos and basses will sing the text on.  The two pitches are not heard simultaneously until 03:18 before the boys’ chorus enters.

00:00 - 4:17 Mixed Chorus
Sung text               
Requiem aeternam dona eis,
Domine, et lux perpetua
luceat eis.

The boys’ chorus which is broken up into first and second trebles sings a somewhat disjointed tune to the rest of the introit text in contrast to what the mixed chorus just sang.  This tune also has something to do with the tritone as each phrase begins on one pitch of the tritone and ends on the other.  The disjointed feeling comes from the many leaps the tune has in its melody and the multiple time signatures that it goes through (6/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4 etc). Toward the end of their section they also more directly outline the actual two pitches of the tritone at “ad te” 05:17 passing it back and forth before the mixed chorus reenters and continues as before.

04:17 - 05:35 Boys Chorus       
Te decet hymnus, Deus in Sion:
et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem;
exaudi orationem meam,
ad te omnis caro veniet.

05:35 - 07:37 Mixed Chorus
(Repeats earlier text)

The poem the tenor sings at this point “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” a lament about the soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.  The poem is split into two sections the first section follows the sorrows of the soldiers who fought on the bloody battlegrounds in Europe.  The second is a commentary on the funeral rituals that were ‘suffered’ by those families that were affected by the war.

07:37 - 00:40 of part 2 Tenor solo
What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them at all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Typically a separate movement during the Catholic mass, the Kyrie is, in the requiem, sung right after the Introit without break.  It is sung a cappella.

00:40 - 02:23 Mixed Chorus
Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison
Kyrie eleison

2. Dies Irae
This movement consists of the Sequence: “Dies Irae” with several interspersed poems: “Voices”, “The Next War”, “Sonnet: On Seeing a Piece of our Artillery Brought into Action” and “Futility”.  The movement is approx 27 minutes long.

This Latin text has, thanks to the Second Vatican Council fallen out of use as a part of the funeral mass.  It is not a hymn of rest or peace but one about the coming of the Day of Judgment at the end of time.

This movement begins with brass fanfares and then the chorus comes in with what can only be described as martial music. The chorus crescendos and reaches a climax at the text “Tuba mirum.”  

02:28 - 07:06 Mixed Chorus
Dies irae, dies illa,               
Solvet saeclum in favilla:           
Teste David cum Sibylla.           
Quantus tremor est futurus,       
Quando Judex est venturus,           
Cuncta stricte discussurus!             
Tuba mirum spargens sonum             
Per sepulchra regionum             
Coget omnes ante thronum.             
Mors stupebit et natura,             
Cum resurget creatura,             
Judicanti responsura.             

I haven’t really been able to find anything written about the following poem but the music continues the martial style started in the choir.  Woodwind fanfares accompany the baritone solo in this section

07:06 to end of part 2 Baritone solo
Bugles sang, saddening the evening air;
And bugles answered, sorrowful to hear.
Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.
The shadow of the morrow weighed on men.
Voices of old despondency resigned,
Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.

The soprano enters for the first time singing about the book in which everyone’s sins have been written and punishment shall be meted out.  The chorus, representing humanity enters, expressing the doubt and uncertainty of their salvation.  

00:00 - 02:55 Soprano
Liber scriptus proferetur,           
In quo totum continetur,           
Unde mundus judicetur.           
Judex ergo cum sedebit           
Quidquid latet, apparebut:             
Nil inultum remanebit.             
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?       
Quem patronem rogaturus,           
Cum vix justus sit securus?           
Soprano and Chorus
Rex tremendae majestatis,           
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,                                 
Salva me, fons pietatis.                               

This poem, “The Next War” declares that death is not the enemy; it is in fact a friend.  The music here in keeping with the text is martial yet rather jaunty.

02:55 - 04:52 Tenor and Baritone
Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death:
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against his powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death - for Life; not men - for flags.

The section that follows begins with the women of the chorus to the text beginning at “Recordare Jesu pie.”  The text is a prayer that pleads for forgiveness and a place in his presence in heaven.  After the women conclude their section the men come in singing the “Confutatis” a text asking that all the wicked on earth be confounded.  Not only are texts different, the music is too.  The “Recordare” is somewhat canonic with the four voices coming in with different texts on the same melodic subject.  The “Confutatis” contains two different subjects itself, one that is an ostinato and the other which is somewhat weeping in style.  They are initially sung separately but then juxtaposed.

04:52 - to end of part 3 Chorus
Recordare Jesu pie,               
Quod sum causa tuae viae:                             
Ne me perdas illa die.             
Quarens me, sedisti lassus:             
Redemisti crucem passus:             
Tantus labor non sit cassus:             
Ingemisco, tamquam reus:             
Culpa rubet vultus meus:             
Supplicanti parce Deus.       
Qui Mariam absolvisti,             
Et latronem exaudisti,             
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.             
Inter oves locum praesta,             
Et ab haedis me sequestra,             
Statuens in parte dextra.             
Confutatis maledictis,             
Flammis acribus addictis,             
Voca me cum benedictis.             
Oro supplex et acclinis     
Cor contritum quasi cinis             
Gere curam mei finis.             

Timpani, the artillery which will ‘quell the arrogance’ is used to great effect underneath the solo baritone.  After the short solo, the choir returns with a strong repetition of the “Dies irae.”  This section slows and quiets until the mood of the text changes at the “Lacrimosa,” which is considered to be a later addition to the text since it and the stanza that follows do not follow the same pattern of rhyming triplets.  

00:00 - 02:00Baritone
Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse;
Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

02:00 - 05:29 Chorus
Dies irae, dies illa,                 
Solvet saeclum in favilla:           
Teste David cum Sibylla.           
Quantus tremor est futurus,           
Quando Judex est venturus,             
Cuncta stricte discussurus!             
Soprano and Chorus
Lacrimosa dies illa,                 
Qua resurget ex favilla,             
Judicandus homo reus:             
Huic ergo parce Deus.       

The poem ‘Futility’ which is interposed with a repetition of the “Lacrimosa” is an oddity in the poetry of Wilfred Owen it is soothing.

05:29 - 01:36 0f Part 5 Tenor
Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Soprano and Chorus
Lacrimosa dies illa...                         
Think how it wakes the seeds -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-acheived, are sides,
Full-nerved - still warm - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
Soprano and Chorus
Qua resurget ex favilla...       
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
Soprano and Chorus
...Judicandus homo reus.           
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.       

3. Offertorium
Britten sets the entire Offertory text and the poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”.  Its length is approx 10 minutes

This is probably the most striking juxtaposition of the two texts as the poem retells the story of the Abram and God’s request that he sacrifice his son to him.  In the bible the story ends with God stopping Abram from killing his son, in the poem Abram kills him anyway disobeying God.  In the poem Abram represents the governments of Europe and Isaac the dead killed in the war.  

The movement begins with the boys singing a plainchant like melody which succeeded by a fugue in the repeating three-part time scheme of 6/8, 9/8, 6/8 where the choir sings of God's promise to Abraham.   

01:36 – end of part 5 Boys
Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae,                          
libera animas omnium fidelium                              
defunctorum de poenis inferni,                            
et de profundo lacu:                                          
libera eas de ore leonis, ne absorbeat eas              
tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum.                   
Sed signifer sanctus Michael                            
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam:                    
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti,                            
et semini ejus.                                            

In this poem, Owen, takes the biblical story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac and compares them to the countries that are at war (Abraham) and the young men killed in action (Isaac).  Unlike in the biblical story, when God tells Abraham not to slay his son and sacrifice a ram instead, Abraham disobeys and kills him anyway.  During the last line of the poem, the boys choir sings the first lines of the remaining offertory text.  

00:00 – to end Tenor and Baritone
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And streched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, -
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Hostias et preced tibi Domine
laudis offerimus; tu suscipe pro
animabus illis, quarum hodie
memoriam facimus: fac eas, Domine,
de morte transire ad vitam.
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
en semini ejus.   

...Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semini ejus.   

4. Sanctus
The mass text is one of ‘serene joy’ and is set in its entirety with the poem “The End (After the blast of lightning from the east).”  The tritone (Fsharp – C) rears its head in this movement and is first heard in the mallet and tuned percussion while the Soprano sings the beginning of the Latin mass text above it all.  The chorus finally enters at 01:40 singing the text “Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua,” each voice entering on a different pitch and measure in the ‘spirit murmer’ style with an insistent crescendo (from pp to fff).  The “Hosannas” are appropriately celebratory in keeping with the text.  They die away to be replaced by the ‘Benedictus’ a transcendental passage sung by the soprano accompanied by the chorus in parallel fifths.  The “Hosannas” return as before.

00:00 – to end part 7 Soprano and Chorus
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
Dominus Deus Saboath.
Pleni sunt ceoli et terra gloria tua,
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.

The following poem seems to say that neither heaven nor earth provide and comfort for the young soldiers killed in battle.  The imagery of the poem is subtly reflected in the accompaniment.

00:00 – 04:07 Baritone
After the blast of lightning from the East,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne;
After the drums of time have rolled and ceased,
And by the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will He annul, all tears assuage? -
Fill the void veins of Life again with youth,
And wash, with an immortal water, Age?
When I do ask white Age he saith not so:
"My head hangs weighed with snow."
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
"My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried."

5. Agnus Dei
This is usually the last piece in the Latin Requiem mass. Here Britten intersperses the poem “At a Calvary near the Ancre” in which the author compares the dead and dying soldiers directly to Christ with the traditional three iterations of the mass text.  The poem also inveighs against those who call for senseless war.  The final tenor line (a plea for peace) is not found in the Requiem mass.  The tritone is played in the chamber orchestra under the tenor solo for certain words and is simultaneously played with the pitch that it wants to resolve to.

04:07 to the end of part 8 Tenor
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem.   
Near Golgatha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.   
Agnus Dei...
The scribes on all the people shove
and bawl allegiance to the state,   
Agnus Dei...
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.   
...Dona eis requiem.   
Dona nobis pacem.

6. Libera me
This movement’s Latin text is actually from the burial service and is not part of the regular Requiem mass.  The text asks that God grant mercy to the deceased at the last judgment.  The music builds from a slow march while the chorus sings a lament to a quick march while the music intensifies as the text changes from one of pleading to one of terror.  

The poem is “Strange Meeting” in which a soldier enters hell to escape the battlefield and while there meets one of the soldiers on the opposing side which he had killed the day before.

00:00 – end of part 9 Chorus
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna,
in die illa tremenda:
Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra:
Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.   
Soprano and Chorus
Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo
dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna.
Quando coeli movendi sunt i terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis
et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Libera me, Domine.   

It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None", said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now..."

Now all the forces combine to conclude the work.

Boys, then Chorus, then Soprano
In paridisum deducant te Angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam
Jerusalem. Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam
habeas requiem.   
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.   
In paradisum deducant etc.   
Chorus Angelorum, te suscipiat etc.   
Tenor and Baritone
Let us sleep now.   
Requiescant in pace. Amen.   

Wilfred Owen was a soldier-poet who enlisted in the British army during World War 1.  His initial cheerfulness and optimism about the war quickly disappeared after two events that affected him.  One was being blown into the air by an enemy shell and landing in the remains of a fellow soldier and two, he was trapped for several days in a German dugout.  After these events he was sent to Scotland to be treated for shell shock.  While there he met another solder-poet Siegfried Sassoon, who helped him edit his verse and influenced his writing style.  Wilfred Owen would return to the front and be killed in action one week before the end of the war.  His poetry is in keeping with that of his mentor Sassoon, a stark and realistic portrayal of battle and war.  

One last note, in 1988 film maker Derek Jarman directed a film he wrote based on this work.  It is a silent film with only Britten’s own 1963 recording as its soundtrack.  The film is Sir Lawrence Olivier’s last appearance before his death.  I’ll link to it in the comments.

Originally posted to proud to be liberal on Thu Apr 07, 2011 at 06:26 PM PDT.

Also republished by An Ear for Music, Readers and Book Lovers, and Community Spotlight.

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