What do you know about Britten’s War Requiem?
The War Requiem was written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral (the old cathedral is pictured at left), and was first performed there 30 May 1962. Coventry Cathedral had been destroyed during the Battle of Britain in World War II. Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the ceremony marking the completion of a new cathedral, designed by Basil Spence, built along side the the ruins of the original millenium-old structure. Since the work was to be performed inside the new cathedral, it was a good acoustic challenge for Britten. The ceremony was comprised of several works, including Tippett’s opera King Priam.
The War Requiem was not meant to be a pro-British piece or a glorification of British soldiers, but a public statement of Britten’s anti-war convictions. It was a denunciation of the wickedness of war, not of other men. The fact that Britten wrote the piece for three specific soloists — a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya), and a British tenor (Peter Pears) — demonstrated that he had more than the losses of his own country in mind, and symbolized the importance of reconciliation. (Unfortunately Vishnevskaya was not available for the first performance, and had to be replaced by Heather Harper). The piece was also meant to be a warning to future generations of the senselessness of taking up arms against fellow men.
It was dedicated to four of Britten’s friends who were killed during World War I:
- Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
- Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines
- David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy
- Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve
The first London performance was on 6 Dec 1942, in Westminster Abbey. The Decca recording that we have used was recorded in 1963. The work received immediate critical acclaim and was hailed as a masterpiece. It was widely performed both in Britain and abroad. Perhaps the combination of English poetry with the familiar text of the Latin mass made the Requiem accessible to such a range of listeners and caused it to be so well received.
Later, the War Requiem was incorporated into a movie with the same name. The movie, which would have otherwise been silent, is a strange, dark work. Most of it seems completely pointless, which leaves one wondering if that was the intention — to show how pointless war is.
TEXT - For the text of the War Requiem, Britten interspersed the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen (pictured at right), a World War I footsoldier who was killed a week before the Armistice. In total contrast to The Spirit of England, written by Britten’s compatriot Edward Elgar, the War Requiem was a decidedly antiwar piece. The Spirit of England was also an epic work in which poetry was set to music, but it brought forth quite a different message.
“I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”
ORCHESTRATION: The Requiem is truly a large-scale work, calling for huge musical forces. It is scored for three soloists, a chamber orchestra, a full choir and main orchestra, and a boys choir and organ. The performers are divided into three distinct planes, often physically separated. Closest are the tenor and baritone soloists and the chamber orchestra. They portray the victims of war. The soloists sing the Owen poetry and communicate in the most personal manner of the three groups. One level removed is the orchestra and chorus, portraying the mass. The soprano soloist adds color to the voices in the chorus, but their Latin singing is less personal than that of the male soloists. Finally, the boys choir and organ present a sound that is almost inhuman. Britten recommended that a small organ be placed in the wings with the boys choir, to create a more distant sound.