War Requiem……Benjamin Britten (1962)
Last night at the Barbican Centre in London I was privileged to attend a performance of Britten’s War Requiem. It was a privilege because this extraordinary account of this extraordinary work was one of those moments in live performance when Art touches the hem of Perfection’s garment.
The London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda played powerfully and beautifully. It brought to life all the dark glories woven through this profound and sombre and deeply moving work. Sabina Cvilak sang like an angelic diva…Ian Bostridge found a timbre that might indeed have been Peter Peers and Simon Keenlyside brought colour and vulnerability in his rich vocal account.
War Requiem is itself an interesting and curious marriage of the liturgy of the Tridentine Requiem Mass and the poetry of Wilfred Owen….if you like, an Oratorio carved out these two conflicting but complementary sources. Leonard Bernstein is destined in the later 1960s to revisit, less successfully, this odd marriage of liturgy and poetry in his Mass.
Britten had already composed the Missa Brevis. He was evidently interested in religious texts. Perhaps more than any composer of religious music since Haydn and Handel, Britten reflects deeply upon both the words and their particular context. In Missa Brevis for example the Sanctus is a brief movement and the Benedictus a longer movement since it takes place in the old rite after the elevation of the bread and wine…whilst the priest prays almost silently…
War Requiem allows Britten a wider canvas to reflect upon text. He uses the poetry of Owen rather as arias or indeed more simply a almost an orchestral song cycle inside the Requiem itself. Composed by 1962 for the opening of Coventry Cathedral the music has echoes of Midsummer Night’s Dream that Britten had also composed in this same period.
But there is so much more here….things of striking originality and things that bring a new texture and depth to very traditional settings of words. The “Quam Olim Abrahae Promisisti” is presented as so often in the form of a fugue…but what a fugue…like Verdi in Falstaff, Britten gathers here is a few magical minutes a lifetime of composition into one glorious harvest of sound. Later in the “Sanctus”, with its cacophony of echoing bells echoes the ringing of the bells in the mass itself as this most holy moment when the great Canon is about to be said… It is a stroke of pure genius. And the “pleni sunt caeoli” really does sound like angels arriving en masse….as it were…to the sacrifice of the Mass…and sacrifice and its meaning are profoundly examined by Owen’s poetry as they’re revisited in the liturgy of death that is the Requiem…..
And in my head I found myself back in cassock and cotta on the altar serving the old requiem mass that passed into history not long after Britten composed this work.
But it’s the end of War Requiem…the music from “It seemed that out of battle I escaped”….to the “In Paradisum” that packs a knock-out emotional punch and is nothing less than pure genius. It’s a humbling experience to listen to something as profound and deeply felt. Here Britten reaches out and shapes our feelings about War and death and love and loss. The hush of the audience after the end spoke of the collective sense of a profoundly felt and shared experience… something that went well beyond the usual…be it Oratorio, opera or indeed even attending an ordinary Mass….
And that is perhaps a sign that in War Requiem Britten found something of the purely Divine and that this performance also found…
It will always remain with me….one of life’s great experiences….
I’ll leave you with a small piece of Wilfred Owen. As a poor writer and a poorer poet I marvel at what Owen makes words do…..the last stanza might serve as a Testament for all our lives.
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But his disciples hide apart;
And now the soldiers bear with him.
Near Golgotha strolls many a priest
In their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.
The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.
The last time I heard this work was in the Abbey church in Bury St Edmund’s…with, amongst others, one of my lifetime’s best of friends, Andrew Storrier. He and I adventured into so much music in one another’s company. The music we shared taught us to love that greater love. He now sleeps and dreams of Paradise. And, reflecting upon life and death, as this magisterial work demands, I remember Andrew, I remember Mark Selly, I remember Maurice Bowler, I remember Steve Meah, I remember Professor Jeb Boswell and I remember a host of others whose company made my life special. I especially remember my mother as the first anniversary of her death approaches with winter’s shorter days.
And I remember what I’ve learned from loss – that love shines its perpetual light across our lives. Love and its eternal hope lives on through the tiny remembered acts of kindness we share with each other on this uncertain pilgrimage across life’s no man’s land.
The gloss of fame paints a false image; immortality rests upon being remembered by those you’ve loved with love.