Benjamin Britten, War Requiem, Royal Albert Hall, Remembrance Sunday, 9 November 2014 at 3.30pm, with Evelina Dobračeva (soprano), Stephan Rügamer (tenor), Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), The Royal Choral Society, Trinity Boys Choir and The London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Richard Cooke. Introduced by Angela Rippon.
Commissioned to commemorate the dedication of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was first performed in the new building in Coventry on 30 May 1962. The English Gothic church of St Michael, completed in the fourteenth century and elevated to cathedral status only in 1918, was destroyed by German bombers on the night of 14 November 1940. The decision to rebuild the cathedral was momentously taken on the morning after its destruction. Fulfilling that resolve became an important national symbol of post-war hope and reconciliation, which, as Alexander Clement remarks (Brutalism, 2011, p. 147), stood for ‘the regeneration of a society scarred by war, the rebuilding of towns and cities from the rubble of the blitz, the revival of Britain’s churches and faiths and … the reinvigoration of the architectural profession.’

A competition held in 1951 resulted in a shortlist of more than 200 designs. Of these only one proposed to retain the bombed-out ruins of the Gothic building as part of the new structure. This was the plan submitted by Basil Spence (1907–76), which reoriented the building on a north-south axis and linked it to the surviving shell and tower of the original cathedral. With its sawtooth walls clad in red sandstone, its concrete vaulting, two circular side chapels dedicated to Unity and Industry and its imaginative programme of modernist decoration, this is the cathedral we know today.

In a number of ways Britten’s War Requiem is the musical equivalent of Spence’s masterpiece. The new building wrests continuity from the wreckage of the old church, integrating the modern and the traditional in every aspect of its design. Its dual orientation, for example, retains the original east-west axis at right angles to Spence’s innovative north-south arrangement. Interior and exterior spaces are beautifully connected, with the sacred space enclosed by the destroyed Gothic cathedral transformed into an outdoor garden of remembrance. Contrast is also a salient feature of the use of materials and the newly commissioned artworks which use the eclectic language of mid-twentieth-century arts and crafts to reinterpret traditional Christian themes and motifs.

In one obvious sense Britten does something comparable in the War Requiem, setting up the piece as a series of significant contrasts. Thus, he punctuates the words of the traditional Latin Missa pro defunctis or Requiem mass with modern English lyrics – nine poems by Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), killed in action in France exactly a week before the end of the First World War. He also distributes the texts among heuristically paired musical forces and textures: soprano, choir and full-sized orchestra for the traditional Latin mass; tenor and baritone soloists accompanied by a chamber orchestra for Owen’s poetry. Further oppositions are created through the use of a boys’ choir accompanied only by a chamber organ or harmonium for chosen verses of the Latin. Positioning the boys’ choir away from the rest of the performers (for the Remembrance Day Sunday performance in the Albert Hall they were high up in the gallery), even creates a physical sense of the importance of contrasting spaces – the earthbound stage, as it were, versus the empyreal realm occupied by the children.

In fulfilling its brief, however, Spence’s Coventry Cathedral invokes a dialectic that can be regarded as quite foreign to Britten’s War Requiem. The ruins of the old cathedral are joined together with the new building to proclaim the resurgence and continuing relevance of inclusive Christian values in post-war Britain and the wider world. As R. Furneaux Jordan wrote in the publication produced to commemorate the consecration: ‘It was not merely that the ruins – including, of course, the magnificent and intact tower and spire – could become a most impressive memorial in themselves; they were also the starting point of a theme that was ultimately to dictate the whole scheme. This was the theme of Sacrifice and Resurrection.’ (Quoted in James D. Herbert, ‘Bad Faith at Coventry’, Critical Inquiry, Spring 1999, p. 547.)

By contrast, the juxtapositions in Britten’s War Requiem are infinitely more fluid – full of complex emotional power, fraught with existential uncertainty. It’s natural to call the mixture of Latin mass and English war poetry ‘ironic’, but that seems an inadequate word to use. Layers of discomfiture encompass failure, futility, bitterness and despair portrayed with extreme emotional intensity. If hope survives, then it’s humane and personal: ‘one’s own little light’, as E. M. Forster called it in the build-up to the Second World War in What I Believe (1939), ‘one’s own poor little trembling flame’. Combine that with the belief that ‘all the great creative actions, all the decent human relations, occur during the intervals when force has not managed to come to the front.’ This, says Forster, is ‘civilization’. With all its poignant frailty it may be the aptest way to characterise the mood of troubled equanimity that emerges from theWar Requiem.

The design of the War Requiem can be glimpsed by briefly examining the beginning of the first movement. Sung by the choir with ‘slow and solemn’ orchestral accompaniment, the words ‘Requiem aeternam’ establish an atmosphere of deep unease. The piece opens with a monotonous, almost hesitant whisper: a far cry from the theatrical affirmation of Mozart’s setting of the same words, to quote a noteworthy comparison. The phrases are interspersed with premonitory chimes. The orchestra adds dissonance – insistent, unsettling, even sinister. Already one is aware of a disjunction. Britten’s grand addition to the tradition of musical Requiems is concerned, at the very outset, not with repose but with dying. Nor is this a lyric lament for the transience of human existence. Death is menacing and cruel. Consolation seems a long way off, and the subsequent appeal for salvation, ‘et lux perpetua luceat eis’, is declaimed in tones that climax in stridency before lapsing again into repressed anxiety.

Then the boys’ choir is heard, seemingly from out of nowhere: ‘Te decet hymnus’; ‘Songs of praise are due to Thee, O God’. The sound is light and quick – aurally as well as physically distant. But is it the song of angels in heaven or of children in a nearby playground? In the same way as Forster sees ‘civilization’ as a condition that comes into being in the brief moments when ‘force’ has not managed to prevail, this is not the music of saving Innocence (with a capital ‘I’) but rather a mere lack of experience. Despite being far off, this musical intervention doesn’t offer an escape route. The contrast serves only to heighten the basic mood of disquiet that now returns in a condensed restatement of the ‘Requiem aeternam’ theme.

Suddenly a rapid transition takes place. Accompanied by the sounds of the battlefield, the tenor soloist gives verbal meaning to the chiming of bells that has punctuated the piece thus far:

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.

This is ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (1917), which, along with ‘The Next War’ (also inserted by Britten into the War Requiem), Wilfred Owen called one of his two best war poems. The title was suggested to Owen by Siegfried Sassoon, and it immediately points to the scathing series of opposites that the ‘Anthem’ joins together – the language of religious ritual shockingly inserted into a landscape devastated by combat on an industrial scale. Owen uses the sonnet form, complete with fourteen iambic pentameter lines and a regular rhyme scheme, to articulate the most brutal subject matter. That disparity between traditional poetic form and the unspeakable horror of modern warfare introduces yet another analogous layer to the series of contrasts upon which Britten builds the War Requiem.

For Britten as for Owen, salvation lies in compassion. If Owen discovers some kind of resolution to the terrible predicament he describes, it is by discarding all isms and abstractions and reaching through all the causes of conflict to rediscover human sympathy in the midst of tragedy. The achievement is summed up in the brilliant and paradoxical line from ‘Strange Meeting’ (1918): ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ Britten incorporates ‘Strange Meeting’ into the final movement of the War Requiem, while on the title page of the published score he quotes from Owen’s preface to a projected first collection that the poet did not live to see through the press: ‘The Poetry is in the pity.’ The War Requiem portrays these simple ideals in the most moving and thoughtful way, combining the grandest musical architecture with an extreme intimacy of appeal.

Teasing out the principles on which the piece is constructed also indicates just how intensely interesting it is – at once spectacular and thought-provoking. ‘Entertaining’ may seem like too trivial a word to apply to such a work, but the idea of serious entertainment was integral to Britten’s aesthetic. On 31 July 1964 the composer became the first recipient of the Robert O. Anderson Aspen Award in the Humanities, established to honour ‘the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities.’ In his acceptance speech Britten stressed the importance of shaping his music for the particular occasion for which it was intended. On that basis, he finds ‘nothing wrong with offering to my fellow-men music which may inspire them or comfort them, which may touch them or entertain them, even educate them – directly and with intention.’ He goes on to say:

Some of the greatest pieces of music in our possession were written for special occasions, grave or gay. But we shouldn’t worry too much about the so-called ‘permanent’ value of our occasional music. A lot of it cannot make much sense after its first performance, and it is quite a good thing to please people, even if only for today. That is what we should aim at – pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself.

The ‘ceremony of occasion’, as Britten calls it, was thoroughly respected in the Albert Hall on Remembrance Sunday when the War Requiem was performed to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. The concert was organised by the Lady R Foundation along with the Royal Choral Society and the London Philharmonic Orchestra in support of Veterans Aid, founded in 1932 (and first called the Embankment Fellowship Centre) in order to provide shelter and meals for destitute ex-servicemen.

Britten’s original intention of using soloists from Britain, Germany and Russia was realised not at the Coventry premiere but when the War Requiem was recorded for Decca in 1963 with Britten conducting. The boxed set of two LPs with its austere black and white cover famously became the fastest-selling classical release in history, with over 200,000 copies sold in six months. For that recording the soloists were the British tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s partner), the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (the wife of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich). At the Albert Hall performance, introduced by Angela Rippon, the solo parts were superlatively sung by the British bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, the German tenor Stephan Rügamer and the Russian soprano Evelina Dobračeva, who marvellously stepped in at short notice to replace Ekaterina Scherbachenko. The Royal Choral Society interpreted Britten’s taut scenic energy and dramatic transitions with rich musicality, while Trinity Boys Choir, directed by David Swinson, expertly added the immaculate and ethereal voices that the piece requires. Fluid and precise, the orchestra and chamber orchestra were made up of members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the grand organ was played by Clíodna Shanahan and the chamber organ by Richard Pearce. The conductor, who masterfully unified these immense and disparate forces, was Richard Cooke.

This was a tremendous afternoon of music, with an intensity and focus that entirely befitted the commemorative circumstances. Towards the end of the War Requiem all the musical components come together: the tenor and baritone sing ‘Let us sleep now’, a line from Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’; the choir, soprano and boys’ choir add ‘In paradisum’. Sumptuously serene and consolatory, the cumulative effect is almost narcotic until it is twice broken by the chiming of bells that summons us back to the uneasy opening words of the whole work, ‘Requiem aeternam’, sung by the boys. Finally, the choir comes to the fore with the phrase ‘Requiescant in pace’ and we are plunged back into a world of doubt and perturbation. It is, as John Bridcut remarks, ‘an inconclusive end to a deeply disturbing piece’. In the Albert Hall it produced a prolonged silence – electric in its concentration and tensely sustained by the audience until Richard Cooke brought it to a close – that seemed an authentic and heartfelt expression of remembrance.

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