Benjamin Britten: War Requiem, Opus 66Submitted by Joseph.Ngo on Mon, 11/25/2013 - 22:26
The other night I had an opportunity to go to a performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem billed by the President of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County as "the greatest piece of music of the twentieth century. Parts English and Latin, the work traverses a battlefield of destruction in the solemnity of a final contemplation with a moving encounter of two souls in a dull tunnel of the hereafter. Said of one:
The pity of war, the pity of war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for you so frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Anastasia Tsioulcas at NPR describes the piece as "harrowing and mournful, with its extraordinary interweaving of the traditional Requiem text and poetry by Wilfred Owen (who was killed in action by a sniper a week before the end of World War I) in a bright, bold and beautiful musical style. And there's no mistaking Britten's political intention."
In the program notes, Jonathan Kramer of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra explains Britten's political intention:
The culmination (but hardly the last) of Britten's musical protests against war was the War Requiem, composed to celebrate the 1962 re-opening of the Coventry Cathedral, which had been virtually destroyed by German bombs during the Battle of Britain in 1940. A new cathedral was built next to the ruins of the old, so that those ruins could remain standing as a stark remainder of the war's destruction. The new building was intended not only as a place of worship but also as a home for the arts. A major arts festival was planned for consecration of this building. When the festival committee asked Britten to compose and conduct a large work for chorus and orchestra, he looked forward to creating the biggest, and most overt, anti-war statement. He felt his pacifism was as relevant in the early 1960s--the time of the building of the Berlin Wall, of the Bay of Pigs and of the escalation of the United States involvement in Vietnam--as it had been during the war with Germany. For his work Britten chose to interweave, with the traditional Catholic Mass for the Dead, nine anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen.
Given that this week was the 100 year anniversary of Britten's birth, the War Requiem among his other works may be finding a way to a concert hall near you. I found some performances scheduled in Los Angeles (tonight 11/25) and in San Francisco for this week (Wednesday 11/27 and Saturday 11/30).
An Introduction to the War Requiem
Britten's War Requiem performed at Lawrence University Chapel