by Rick Krueger
“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity … All a poet can do today is warn.” — Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
I took an orchestration class in early 1982. The final project sounded simple: listen to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and write a report. While I knew of Britten, and had heard his music — The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was still standard music appreciation class material — this piece was new to me. I figured I’d borrow the record (conducted by the composer) from the college library, hear it once, and have what I needed to bang out an analysis. Then I dropped the needle:
This piece demanded full attention — ears, head, heart and guts. 90 minutes later, I sat in my dorm room, drained and amazed. 35 years (and one long lost paper) later, I’m still completely engaged every time I hear the War Requiem, and singing it with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in 2008 was a highlight of my life in performance. It’s always commanded my wholehearted admiration, and it set me off on a deeper exploration of classical music (and 20th century music in particular) that’s endured to this day. Why?
Britten’s path to the War Requiem was by no means straightforward. Trained for thorough professionalism, composing knotty and intellectually challenging music in a country hooked on Elgar marches and the cult of the amateur, a left-wing pacifist in a triumphalist society, he ultimately bore the stigma of conscientious objector status in World War II (though not the jail sentence other protesters served). Breaking through after the war via both sheer talent and boosts by influential friends and admirers, Britten gained worldwide acclaim for operas such as Peter Grimes, complex but accessible choral works like A Ceremony of Carols, and tuneful yet astringent settings of poems from the British lyric tradition by John Donne, Thomas Hardy and others.
In 1958, Britten was commissioned to write for the consecration of a new cathedral in Coventry; the original church had been destroyed by German bombers in the Battle of Britain, and the new building would rise alongside the rubble of the old. His response was both ambitious and provocative: set the Requiem Mass for chorus, solo soprano and orchestra plus boy choir with organ, then intersperse searing anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen (killed in action at the end of World War I), set for tenor and bass soloists with chamber orchestra. The interplay of the Requiem’s muffled, detached grief and Owen’s despairing, caustic volleys proved deeply unsettling, probing the complicity of church and state in the cruelty of battle, while honoring the courage and sacrifice of those who fought. Unlike the pacifist propaganda works of Britten’s early career, the War Requiem simply highlights the brutal contradictions of life in a fallen world — then leaves the response up to us.
“Simply” isn’t the right word, though — Britten used every musical resource at his command, building complex structures atop asymmetric foundations to get his point across. The limping orchestral march (quoting his earlier Sinfonia da Requiem) and the choral tritones of the “Requiem aeternam”; the heaven storming brass of the “Dies Irae” (channeling echoes of Verdi’s Requiem into a pre-prog rock 7/4), the “Sanctus” and the “Libera me”; the perky “Offertory” fugue that becomes a macabre coda to Owen’s “Parable of the Old Man and the Young”; the seamless major/minor vacillations of Owen’s “At a Calvary near the Ancre” and the “Agnus Dei”; it all culminates in a final grinding juxtaposition, where Owen’s grim vision of enemies at peace only in Hades, “Strange Meeting”, yields to a gorgeous “In Paradisum,” incorporating the whole ensemble for the only time in the work — but refusing to let off the hearers with easy consolation.
To highlight both the tensions and the hope for reconciliation embodied in the War Requiem, Britten, who typically wrote for specific performers, wanted Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, British tenor Peter Pears (his lifelong partner) and German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for the solo vocal roles. While the Soviets unsurprisingly blocked Vishnevskaya from singing the May 1962 premiere, she did get to sing on Britten’s brilliant 1963 recording of the work — which, at the height of English Beatlemania, sold an unheard-of 200,000 copies in five months. The only recorded version of the piece for 20 years, with atmospheric, realistic stereo placement by innovative producer John Culshaw, it’s never gone out of print, and has never been eclipsed by the numerous versions that followed the advent of digital recording. It’s that recording that grabbed me on that spring afternoon in 1982 — a deliberate, passionate summation of Britten’s life and career in music to that point, placed at the service of an unsparing depiction of war and its dehumanizing effect, every note, rhythm, melody and harmony permeated with unswerving purpose.
(One additional note: Decca/Polygram/Universal have consistently added value to later reissues of this album, which has remained full-priced throughout its history. 50 minutes of Britten coaching his forces in rehearsal (with Vishnevskaya throwing occasional tantrums in the background) were tacked on in 1999, and Britten’s centennial 2013 brought a super-clean new remaster, complete with bonus Blu-Ray.)
More by and about Britten: Like Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky, Britten conducted the bulk of his music on record. Most of these recordings are collected in the 4 volumes (35 compact discs) of Decca’s Britten Conducts Britten. The 27-disc Britten the Performer showcases his consistently fine work on other composers’ music, with towering renditions of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and St. John Passion, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, and much more. Both of these massive collections are easily accessible on YouTube or Spotify (though finding specific works or even movements can be tricky).
The most direct way into Britten’s musical world is through his choral works. These two early digital recordings from the 1980s, both released on Hyperion Records, were essential to understanding Britten’s sound as I dug deeper:
- Choral Music — Rejoice in the Lamb, A Wedding Anthem, Festival Te Deum, A Boy Was Born (Corydon Singers, Westminster Cathedral Choristers, Thomas Trotter [organ], Matthew Best [conductor])
- A Ceremony of Carols, Missa Brevis in D, Anthems (Westminster Cathedral Choir, Sioned Williams [harp], James O’Donnell [organ], David Hill [conductor].
Currently, the best biography available is Paul Kildea’s Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century (London, Allen Lane, 2013), which candidly weighs all sides of a complex, driven character and reaches some controversial conclusions. John Culshaw’s memoir of his life in the industry, Putting the Record Straight (out of print), includes perhaps the most concentrated portrait of Britten as musician and recording artist.
Related Requiems, Symphonies and Operas:
- Maurice Durufle, Requiem (Ann Murray, Thomas Allen [vocal soloists], Corydon Singers, Thomas Trotter [organ], English Chamber Orchestra, Matthew Best [conductor] — Hyperion Records). Like Gabriel Faure, Durufle’s requiem setting downplays the brimstone, though flashes of fire remain. Rich, chant-based, powerful.
- Edward Elgar, The Sketches for Symphony No. 3, elaborated by Anthony Payne (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis [conductor] — NMC Recordings) Elgar’s major orchestral works prove there’s more to him than a jingoistic court composer. This posthumous symphony, teased in shape more than 50 years after his death, reveals even more hidden depths.
- Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 8 — “Symphony of a Thousand” (Operahaus-und Museumorchester of Frankfurt, Michael Gielen [conductor] — Sony Classical)
- Mahler, Symphony No. 9 (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan [conductor] — Deutsche Grammphon). Mahler was a major influence on Britten, at a time when he was thought of as (in the words of Ralph Vaughan Williams) “a tolerable imitation of a composer.”
- Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti [conductor]). John Culshaw’s most groundbreaking stereo production — 4 operas recorded over 8 years, 17 hours of music now available on a single (though pricey) Blu-Ray.
Previous albums in this series:
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