December 8, 2013
CLASSICAL MUSICWednesday, September 18, 2013
Before you go: Britten’s War Requiem
A musical, non-liturgical masterpiece on the horrors of armed struggle
On November 14, 1940, the medieval Coventry Cathedral of St. Michael was bombed almost to destruction by a German Blitz. As a result of a competition, held in 1950, to find an architect for a new Cathedral, Basil Spence and Arup’s design was chosen from over 200 submitted and built next to the remains of the old building.
Instead of reproducing the Gothic, early 15th-century style of its predecessor, the architects opted for a modern design and created a highly controversial building joining the devastated ruins of the old with the new in what was hailed as a symbol of post-war reconciliation between countries that were once enemies.
Similar structures were built in Berlin and St. Petersburg. These centres of pilgrimage share replicas of the Cross of Nails, made up of remains of the old Cathedral: wooden beams joined by three nails. The Cross of Nails has also been carried on board all British warships which subsequently bear the name HMS Coventry.
A WAR POET. Many festivities celebrated the new consecration of the cathedral in May 1962. The War Requiem, Opus 66 is a large-scale, non-liturgical setting of the Requiem Mass composed by Benjamin Britten in 1961-1962.
Britten interspersed the traditional Latin texts, in telling juxtaposition, with settings of Wilfred Owen (Shropshire,1893 – Sambre Channel, 1918) poems. He is the author of the best known war poem, Dulce et decorum est, which begins with “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks.”
Owen, regarded by historians as the finest WWI poet, known for his war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare, was killed in action in 1918, when he was 25, one week before the Armistice. Seven of the poems he wrote during the war were chosen by Britten to add an extraordinary dramatic counterpoint to the liturgical text. Owen headed his work with these words: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.”
I quote the poem he wrote about Abraham and Isaac, Parable of the Old Man and the Youth, which Britten chose to illustrate the Offertorium and mark the abyss separating the word of the Lord from reality.
The old man is about to sacrifice his son to God, when an angel tells him to kill the Ram of Pride (caught in a thicket by his horns) as an offering instead. And he does so, according to the Bible.
However, in his poem, Owen tells us: “…But the old man would not so, but slew his son and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
The poem is sung by the tenor and baritone soloists accompanied by the chamber orchestra.
A CHILD OF OUR TIMES. Benjamin Britten (Lowestoft, November 22, 1913 – Aldeburgh, December 4, 1976), born on Saint Cecilia’s day, was hailed as the new Orpheus Britannicus and heir of Henry Purcell, (1659–1695), arguably the greatest British composer. He refused a knighthood but accepted a baronage.
Britten wrote an impressive number of masterpieces, among which are , Les Illuminations (with text by Rimbaud) Opus 18, A Ceremony of Carols, Opus 28, A Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra Opus 34, Holy Sonnets of John Donne Opus 36 , and a number of great operas such as Peter Grimes (1945), The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), Billy Budd (1951) Gloriana (1953), The Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Owen Wingrave (1970), and Death in Venice (1973). Most of these works show the concern for innocence and youth that was a main trait in life as well as in his musical output.
A stout pacifist, a homosexual and an agnostic, Britten was a conscientious objector not only to war but to any kind of violence, especially against the innocent.
A singular addition to the texts is featured in the Agnus Dei, where Brittten included a prayer for the living: the tenor says Dona nobis pacem. He composed the Requiem Opus 66 for three soloists accompanied by a chamber orchestra, chorus, treble chorus, a large symphonic orchestra, positive organ and a large organ used only at the end. It needs two conductors: the second one conducts the treble chorus.
Glorious antecedents to Britten’s chosen structure were Ralf Vaughan Williams’ (1872–1958) Dona nobis pacem (1936), with the liturgical texts interspersed with poems by Walt Whitman and, of course, Bach’s Passions, where the gospels are meditated in pious chorales. For the Coventry première, Britten chose the Russian Galina Vishnevskaya (replaced by Heather Harper shortly before the performance because the original soprano was forbidden to leave Russia), the British Peter Pears (his lifetime companion) and the German Dieter Fischer Diskau. Britten’s choice of soloists enhance the atmosphere of reconciliation the work is devoted to.
THE DEVIL IN MUSIC. The style he used is highly unusual. In the Middle Ages, a particular interval was termed Diabolus in music. The Church forbade its use in liturgical works because it considered it highly dangerous: supposedly, it softened the senses, led to sinful thoughts and distracted people from the word of the Lord. The interval is an augmented fourth, containing three whole tones.
Composers who used this in their works were severely punished and were liable to be judged by the Holy Inquisition. It was later used by many composers, such as Liszt, to represent the devil in their works. Even in our day, the augmented fourth is still unsettling.
Britten, talking about the horrors of war, chose the tritone to illustrate his Requiem, resolving the eerie dissonance only in the rare moments of peace the work contains.
You can produce the harmonically uncertain tritone playing f - h on any instrument, without risk.
IMMINENT PERFORMANCES. So here it is, in a nutshell. The Requiem deserves a whole newspaper (or two), but there are other things you might be interested in reading about.
However, many other aspects of this formidable work, surely among the most important and meaningful of the 20th century, shall be disclosed in the lectures the Colón houses in Antes del telón (Before the Curtain), its free-admittance cycle of key note adresses held at 6pm sharp before performances.
Speakers are Diego Fischerman on Tuesday, September 24 and October 1, and me on Friday, September 27. There is a fourth performance (alas, with no lecture preceding it) on Sunday, September 29.
The cast features soprano Tamara Wilson, tenor Enrique Folger, and baritone Víctor Torres; the Colón’s Resident Orchestra, Chorus (Miguel Martínez) and Treble Chorus (César Bustamante), with conductor Guillermo Scarabino wielding the baton.