Britten War Requiem

Reflection

Lest we forget. 

How do we constructively commemorate the cataclysmic events of the Great War? How do we use these days, 100 years after armistice, to remember the unimaginable sacrifice of families and communities on all sides? How do we state, unequivocally, that their sacrifice was not in vain? 

These questions remain a central part of the process of commemoration and each of us must find our own answers. With our performance of Britten’s poignant, haunting War Requiem, dedicated to the memory not only of those who fell in the Great War, but to the victims of all war, we will remember in our own way. 

Central to this performance, and to a week of remembrance through music, is the visit of Germany’s National Youth Orchestra. This is an ensemble close to my heart, an ensemble that represents values of inclusivity, openness, internationalism, discourse and generosity. These musicians represent the best of our youth today, 100 years on, and the promise of our future – engaged, aware, passionate and dedicated. I am proud that they will be sitting side-by-side with Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, only a few feet away from the National War Memorial, in a gesture of solidarity and optimism. 

I hope that the words of the Requiem Mass, intertwined with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, performed by these two great orchestras from these two liberal, caring countries will serve as a worthy and fitting tribute to our modern ideals, forged in the darkest moments of last century.

Lest we forget.


In Memoriam: Two Brothers

Both Col. J. Ewart Osborne, D.S.O. and his older brother, Col. Henry Campbell Osborne, C.M.G., C.B.E., served Canada during World War I – one in battle, the other as part of the High Command (not in battle). Henry Osborne spent much of the war in London and Ottawa whilst his younger brother, Ewart, fought with his regiment, the 48th Highlanders of Toronto. Ewart was captured in April 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres and spent four years as a prisoner of war in German prison camps east of Dresden.

Post-war, Henry Osborne became the first Canadian Secretary of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, overseeing the creation of cemeteries near the battlefields for Canadian fallen and instrumental in the construction of the Vimy Memorial. Ewart was released to his family waiting in Britain. Perhaps suffering some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (a malady not identified in those days), he refused at first to return to Canada. Only later did he come home.

The universal aftermath for all Canadian and German families touched by the war was the same – loss and change. This performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, and especially the participation of musicians from both Canada and Germany, is a tribute to everyone affected by the travesty of war.

_____
This concert is dedicated to the memory of Col. J. Ewart Osborne, D.S.O. and Col. Henry Campbell Osborne, C.M.G., C.B.E. The NAC wishes to thank Sarah Jennings and Ian Johns for their generous support of this performance.


Britten

War Requiem

Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, November 22, 1913
Died in Aldeburgh, December 4, 1976

On Memorial Day, May 30, 1982 in Coventry, England, Pope John Paul II  proclaimed that “today, the scale and the horror of modern warfare, whether nuclear or not, makes it totally unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations. War should belong to the tragic past, to history; it should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future.”

Unfortunately, the Pope’s words are still frighteningly relevant in 2018, making a performance of Britten’s War Requiem as potent and meaningful today as the occasion for which it was composed. That occasion was in 1962 to celebrate the consecration of the new Saint Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. Twenty-two years earlier, on the night of November 14–15, 1940, the Germans had bombed the city in an eleven-hour air raid that left over a thousand people wounded or dead, and destroyed the city centre, including the 14th-century Cathedral. England’s most celebrated composer, and a confirmed pacifist, was commissioned to write an appropriate work for the celebration. It turned out to be the Requiem of the century, on a scale with those of Mozart’s in the 18th century and Verdi’s in the 19th. 

The first performance was given on Memorial Day, 1962. Meredith Davies conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra while Britten led the twelve-member chamber orchestra (the Melos Ensemble). A separate conductor for the chamber orchestra is not really necessary, but Britten was in poor health and unable to lead the full forces of the Requiem, so he was assigned this subsidiary role. Also participating were the Coventry Festival Chorus, the boys’ choir of Holy Trinity, Leamington, and of Holy Trinity, Stratford. 

Britten intended that the three vocal soloists represent three countries that had suffered grievous losses in World War II – England, Germany, Russia. Tenor Peter Pears represented England, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau represented Germany, and soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was to have represented Russia, but the country’s Ministry of Culture refused to allow her to travel. Heather Harper replaced her for the premiere, though Vishnevskaya was eventually allowed to travel to England for the recording made shortly thereafter. Such was the impact of the event in Coventry that subsequent performances were quickly given in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Leningrad, Tokyo and North America. The Canadian premiere went to the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir conducted by Walter Susskind on November 10, 1964. The two-LP set, released in January 1963 with Britten conducting, sold upwards of 200,000 copies, an almost unbelievable figure for a serious classical release.

The most distinctive feature of Britten’s War Requiem is the interpolation into the traditional Catholic mass of poems by England’s finest poet on the subject of war, Wilfred Owen (1893–1918). Owen was killed in the trenches of France on November 4, 1918, just one week before armistice was declared. The posthumous publication of his 24 Poems in 1920 brought to the world’s attention Owen’s talent, his keen sense of detail, and his ability to express with metrical freedom the immediacy of life on the front. These poems speak powerfully, painfully at times, of the senselessness, the cruelty, the despair, the anguish, the futility, the destructiveness, and sheer horror of war. Britten selected nine of these poems and wove them into the fabric of the liturgical texts. The result was the jarring yet highly effective juxtaposition of the lofty but impersonal Catholic mass with the raw, in-your-face immediacy of the poems. In a sense, Britten’s work became “in many ways a Requiem not really for the dead, nor even for the living, but rather a Requiem for the dying,” wrote Rev. Charles J. Matonti in Choral Journal (October 1983). 

Britten’s work can be seen as existing on three planes (surely a reference to the Holy Trinity), each identified by the forces involved. On one level are the full orchestra, mixed chorus and solo soprano, who present sacred scripture – the text of the Latin Requiem Mass in a formal expression of mourning and the plea for deliverance. On a second plane are the two male soloists who sing with the chamber orchestra; they present the settings of Owen’s poems, symbolizing humanity. On the third plane are the boys’ choir and organ, offering a remote, ethereal vision of calm and peace. Ideally the boys’ choir is placed somewhere offstage, an element unto itself, beyond either sacred or secular. 
 

REQUIEM AETERNAM

Requiem aeternam – A strange, ghostly aura hovers over the opening pages. Distant bells toll. The orchestra struggles forward, as if portraying the tortured, dragging footsteps of the wounded and dying. 

Te decet hymnus – In striking contrast, the boys’ choir interrupts to chant a Psalm verse – a vision of purity and heavenly peace with the promise of deliverance. But it doesn’t last. Full orchestra and chorus pull us back to the world of ceremonial grief.

“What passing bells” – The first of Owen’s poems suddenly springs to life. The tenor, accompanied by the chamber orchestra, sings of the thousands of wasted youth “who die like cattle.” The movement ends with the full chorus, in hushed tones, accompanied only by those haunting bells, singing the Kyrie eleison. The harmonic instability that marks this passage (much use of the tritone) is resolved only in the final chord, sung at the very threshold of audibility.
 

DIES IRAE

Dies irae / Tuba mirum – The Dies irae is the thirteenth-century Latin poem that graphically describes the terrible Day of Judgment about to arrive and the fear of miserable sinners standing before their judge. Most composers depict this scene as a spectacular vision of damnation; Britten does so against a background of trench warfare. Brass fanfares echo around the hall, answering each other from near and far. 

“Bugles sang” – Subdued versions of the brass fanfares, now in the chamber orchestra, accompany the baritone in Owen’s satirical poem about terrified young soldiers hearing bugles “singing” on the eve of battle.

Liber scriptus / Quid sum miser / Rex tremandae – To harsh, forceful phrases, the solo soprano announces that each sinner’s deeds are known and recorded, to which the chorus responds in a quiet plea for guidance. The soprano returns in urgent, terrified pleas for salvation.

“Out there” – For this friendly dialogue for two soldiers, Britten marks in the score that it is to be played “fast and gay,” but the reality of war is anything but gay, and there is nothing “friendly” about the Death these two soldiers expect soon to encounter. The irony is unsettling, even macabre.

Recordare – The gentle, comforting voices of the female chorus make another plea, directly to Jesus, for salvation.

Confutatis – In striking contrast, the male chorus intrudes to the accompaniment of angry snaps from the low brass. 

“Be slowly lifted up” – The baritone describes the “long black arm” of an artillery gun slowly rising, towering over the landscape. Painfully dissonant chords, to be played fortississimo, mark the end of each phrase of the text. Harsh tattoos from the timpani underscore the senseless brutality of the scene. Recurrences of the brass fanfares that announced the Dies irae eventually bring a full refrain of this passage in all its awful terror.

Lacrimosa / “Move him” – When the Dies irae shudders to a stop, the chorus and solo soprano begin their lament of tears and mourning. For the only time in the Requiem, words of the Latin Mass and of Owen’s English poems are heard as a single unit: phrases of the Latin liturgy alternate with phrases of Owen, the former in music of sorrow and solace, the latter in terms of bitter, inexpressible grief as a soldier pitifully, hopelessly, attempts to keep a comrade alive by moving him into the warmth of the sun.

Pie Jesu – The long Dies irae movement – the longest in the Mass – comes to a quiet end with a short passage for the a cappella chorus praying for eternal rest. As in the ending of the first movement, distant bells punctuate the phrases of the chorus, and the final chord fades into inaudibility.

OFFERTORIUM

Domine Jesu Christe – The tremendous tension and anxiety of the Dies irae are dispelled by the cool, distant sound of the boys’ choir, not heard for over half an hour, appealing for deliverance for the faithful from the fate of hell.

Sed signifier / Quam olim Abrahae / “So Abram rose” – A brief prelude (Sed signifier) leads into a lively fugue (Quam olim Abrahae). The chorus proclaims that St. Michael will lead the faithful into the path of light as promised to Abraham and his seed. Tenor and baritone in turn begin to relate the biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac as God commanded. But matters take a horrible, wrong turn in Owen’s poem: instead of substituting a ram for his son, Abraham kills him, along with “half the seed of Europe, one by one” – a potent metaphor for the mindless slaughter of youth in the war. 

Hostias / Quam olim Abrahae – The bitter irony continues as the boys’ choir recalls the promise of salvation while tenor and baritone repeatedly interject reminders about “half the seed of Europe” being sacrificed. In hushed tones, the full chorus returns with a last reminder about God’s promise to Abraham.

SANCTUS

Sanctus / Pleni sunt – To an accompaniment of shimmering, clanging percussion, the soprano sings the text of the Sanctus. The chorus responds in a free elaboration of the Pleni sunt, building to an enormous climax. 

Hosanna in excelsis / Benedictus / Hosanna – Blazing fanfares from the brass and joyous Hosannas from the chorus temporarily take us far from the reality of war and suffering. The solo soprano’s Benedictus and choral responses lend a more intimate, subdued tone to the proceedings. 

“After the blast of lightning” – Suddenly we are back in the theatre of war for the grimmest, most despairing and nihilistic of Owen’s poems.

AGNUS DEI

“One ever hangs” / Agnus Dei – In music of sublime simplicity and haunting beauty, solo tenor and chamber orchestra alternate with the full orchestra and chorus, the former delivering Owen’s poem about the contrast between those who encourage war and those who actually fight, the latter reiterating the prayer for eternal rest. The seamless line of the two alternating strands serves as a potent metaphor fusing the personal and the liturgical.

LIBERA ME

Libera me / Dies illa, dies irae – Beginning almost inaudibly as a muffled tread, the music builds slowly, inexorably, with ever-increasing urgency and terror, to the War Requiem’s loudest moment – one of the most horrendous, cataclysmic, terrifying outbursts ever unleashed from a concert stage. 

“Strange meeting” – When the dust settles, we hear the last of Owen’s poems, a doomsday scenario delivered in a mood so numb with grief and spiritual desolation as to defy description. 

In paradisum – In a gesture of reconciliation, for the first and only time in the War Requiem, all the forces are combined. Both choirs, both orchestras, and the three soloists conjure up visions of entry into Paradise. The last words, “Requiescant in pace, Amen,” go to the full chorus alone, but it is a restless, uneasy peace. The spectre of future wars remains… 

November 9, 2018: The NAC Orchestra is performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for the first time.

Program notes by Robert Markow


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