This past weekend I participated in a pre-concert discussion of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at a performance by the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. At the concert I also accepted a plaque on behalf of the University of Notre Dame for its support of the Symphony. Then I settled into a box seat to listen to a magnificent rendering of Britten’s demanding work under the skilled direction of Maestro Tsung Yeh.
The pre-concert discussion provided an opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of Britten’s masterpiece. The work is a powerful indictment of war. It was commissioned and first performed in 1962 on the occasion of the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, built alongside the ruins of the historic St. Michael’s Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombers in November 1940 during a massive raid that also damaged thousands of homes and killed hundreds of residents.
Britten’s libretto is based on the traditional Latin requiem mass, but it also draws extensively from the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a young British army officer who served in World War I and was killed in action just a week before the armistice was signed in November 1918. Owen wrote vividly realistic and often shocking poems that depicted the true horrors of war. He rejected the propagandistic portrayals of heroic war that were typical of his time (and that are occasionally heard today). His war poetry had enormous influence in the years after World War I and is considered among the finest ever written.
In one of the poems selected by Britten, Owen bleakly recasts the ending of the story of Abraham and Isaac, as the angel of mercy descends to stop Abraham’s sacrifice:
Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not do so
But slew his son
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
In choosing Owen’s poetry for his text, Britten memorialized the horrors of both world wars. The Requiem is a tribute to all who were killed and all the great monuments of human creativity like St. Michael’s cathedral that were destroyed in those conflagrations. Britten manages to be respectful of the sacrifices of those who suffered in war while condemning the institution of war itself. His work is an outcry against what Owen called ‘the pity of war,’ a reminder of the destructiveness of modern warfare and its vast toll in lives lost. The Requiem reflects Britten’s deep opposition to war in all its forms, including the threat of nuclear war, which loomed large at the time he was writing this work in the early 1960s.
For the three vocalists in the premier performance, Britten commissioned a tenor from England, a baritone from Germany and a soprano from the Soviet Union. This was a gesture of reconciliation, a statement that all sides suffered in war and could come together through art to voice a common rejection of violence. The enemy is not the people of the other side, he was saying, but the institution of war itself.
Performances of the Requiem are a reminder of the horrors of war but also a plea for peace and reconciliation, for the resolution of jarring disharmonies through the magical beauty of music.